49ers top CBs turning into lethal one-two combo for opposing offenses

Nov 30, 2023, 9:01 AM | Updated: 9:25 am

Defensive Pass Game Specialist and Secondary Coach Cory Undlin, Charvarius Ward #7 and Deommodore L...

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Everyone knows the bread & butter of the San Francisco 49ers defense is the pass rush. But over the last few weeks, the secondary has stepped up as well, with Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir leading the charge.

The 49ers’ starting cornerbacks have been steadily improving since last season. Both men have had their lulls at various parts of the last year or so, but since the team’s Bye Week, the pair’s production has only gotten better with each game.

It starts with CB Charvarius Ward, the 49ers big free-agent signing of the 2022 offseason.

Locked into a three-year, $39 million deal, “Mooney” had a stellar freshman campaign for the Red & Gold. He finished 2022 with an 83.2 Pro Football Focus grade, a career-best mark. Ward was also tied for within tackles (67) for a CB, showing his versatility on the outside.

But this season hasn’t been as fruitful for the 27-year-old (78.5 PFF grade), who routinely gets targeted and flagged for playing too physical. Those traits have dwindled over the last three weeks, however, only allowing 11 catches for 113 yards combined since Week 10. His most impressive outing came on Thanksgiving against the Seattle Seahawks, with wide receivers D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett combining for only 62 yards on six catches.

Ward was tasked with guarding Metcalf, and did so admirably, only allowing one catch for 13 yards last Thursday. He also had five tackles and three pass breakups on the night. That play is what the 49ers have been looking for from him, hoping he can be a Pro Bowl player on a consistent basis.

“We have immense confidence in him. I think he’s playing at an All-Pro level. I don’t know if the stats are there necessarily but if you watch the tape, he’s as good as it gets,” defensive end Nick Bosa said about Ward after the game.

The 49ers have been aware of the Mississippi native’s skillset for some time, always remaining confident that they could get the best out of him as a starter. First-year 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has been most impressed with Mooney, seeing him blossom further under his guidance.

“A lot of confidence in him. I think he’s emerging each and every week,” Wilks said last month about Ward. “I think it starts in practice. Just leaving practice now, just watching him, how he goes about his job, it translates and carries over to the game. So he’s working hard each and every day. The confidence [is] there to be able to call man or zone when he’s out there.”

The player has also been a big fan of Wilks’ addition to the locker room, raving about having a secondary-minded DC since the summer.

“I like his scheme, he kinda adding his own wrinkle to things, but it’s still mainly the same defense. I feel like he got a lot of knowledge amongst the [defensive backs], I get a lot of 1-on-1 work with him. And hopefully, he’ll take me to the next level and all the other DBs as well,” Ward said in training camp about his new coach.

Ward’s play has also risen in part due to his counterpart, Deommodore Lenoir, stepping up as well.

Lenoir, 24, is having his best NFL season by far, locked in as the team’s second-best cover man. The added opportunity has only aided in development, posting a solid 66.3 PFF score through 12 weeks. The University of Oregon alum also has the second-most tackles by a CB this season (51), taking a page out of Mooney’s playbook.

His biggest strength however is his versatility, able to play on the inside and outside in coverage. That has allowed the 49ers’ defense to worm through some kinks on the back end, something the Red & Gold are extremely pleased with.

“I can’t say enough about [Deommodore Lenoir] DMo,” coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday. “I mean, DMo has been so good on the outside, & when we ask him to go inside he goes in & plays the exact same way. Wherever DMo stays at, he gets really good at it…I can’t tell you how happy I’ve been with his style of play.”

The third-year CB will also admit that 2023 has been a career campaign so far, taking hold of the responsibility that was placed upon him when Emmanuel Moseley went down with a torn ACL midway through the 2022 season.

“Way different, more confident, play faster,” he said about his level of play since he was a rookie. “In just the knowledge of the game, you can tell it’s slowed down.”

That statement started late last season for Lenoir, posting stellar individual performances through the postseason. His best game came against the Philadelphia Eagles, combining with Ward to allow only two catches for 16 yards. Yes, the 49ers still got blown out in said game (31-7), but there were multiple other reasons than the CB play.

The 49ers’ secondary as a whole has improved greatly since the bye, only allowing one wideout to record 50 or more yards in the last three games. The play of CBs Ambry Thomas and Isaiah Oliver has also taken a turn for the better, only allowing Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ star WRs Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to have 83 yards combined on 19 targets.

Is it perfect? No, not by any means.

But the 49ers secondary is rolling with the most interceptions in the NFL (15). They are also fourth in yards per attempt (5.6) tied for third in touchdowns allowed (11) and 11th in yards allowed.

Point being: The 49ers defense is balling once more.

Upcoming San Francisco 49ers Schedule

  • Sunday, Dec. 3rd @ Philadelphia Eagles – 1:25 p.m. PST
  • Sunday, Dec. 10th vs. Seattle Seahawks – 1:05 p.m. PST
  • Sunday, Dec. 17th @ Arizona Cardinals – 1:05 p.m. PST
  • Monday, Dec. 25th vs. Baltimore Ravens – 5:15 p.m. PST
  • Sunday, Dec. 31st @ Washington Commanders – 10:00 a.m. PST

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