The San Francisco 49ers are getting into crunch-time, and having liabilities at any position on the field could mean the difference between playoffs and staying home.
The Niners put together a 23-7 victory on Sunday over the Houston Texans to improve to 9-7, but it was still a mediocre day at best for a secondary that has given up a lot of big plays this season.
While rookie corner Ambry Thomas has shown progress in recent weeks and received the support of general manager John Lynch, veteran Josh Norman continues to struggle as a 34-year-old veteran. In fact, the former 2015 All-Pro was benched for Dontae Johnson against the Texans, per head coach Kyle Shanahan.
The swap for Johnson came at in the fourth quarter, after Norman was forced to commit a 33-yard pass interference penalty after getting torched by Houston receiver Brandin Cooks. Johnson ended up giving up a similar penalty the very next play per PFR, for what it’s worth.
However, Johnson played a much cleaner half, leading to Norman riding the bench much of the second half and playing just 69 percent of the defensive snaps in total.
Coming into Sunday, Norman was allowing a pass completion rate of 67.2 percent and a passer rating of 118.8. While the Niners secondary as a whole has been lackluster, time is running out specifically for Norman.
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49ers Starter Could Return for Week 18
The 49ers need Emmanuel Moseley to return for the regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Rams. As Heavy’s Lorenzo Reyna wrote up, Shanahan says that could happen.
“We’re hoping E-man has a chance next week,” Shanahan told media last week.
That’s pretty loose language from the San Francisco head coach, but Moseley made progress in practice last week, per Matt Barrows.
That was Monday, December 27. If the rest of the week, has gone well, that could mean Moseley hits the field. It would also mean a corner will be benched, and it’s hard to think that’s not Norman right now.
Thomas registered two defended passes and a 25 percent completion rate against the Tennessee Titans, and 49ers insider David Lombardi called the rookie’s showing against the Texans his best performance yet. With Johnson also stepping in after Norman was benched, it feels as if the former Carolina Panther is at the bottom of the totem pole.
Of course, if Moseley doesn’t make it back, then this discussion is pointless. But if he does, it seems like Norman could be helping the Niners as a sub.
49ers Respond to Back-to-Back Penalties
Those aforementioned pass interference penalties against Norman and Johnson gave the Texans 56 yards in two plays, when they were down just 10-7 in the fourth quarter. The two penalties put Houston at the San Francisco 25-yard line and an eight-yard rush from Rex Burkhead had the Texans in the redzone.
However, two crucial plays from 49ers defenders changed the course of the final minutes. Burkhead was stuffed for a one-yard loss by nickel defensive back K’Waun Williams, while defensive lineman Arden Key got home on a sack to force a 45-yard field goal try that was unsuccessful.
The very next drive, 49ers rookie QB Trey Lance hit a 45-yard bomb to receiver Deebo Samuel to make it 17-7 and the Niners were in the driver seat.
Star linebacker Fred Warner was asked about the all-important response from his defense after the two huge penalties.
“We pride ourselves on if something bad happens,” Warner said per 49ers Webzone. “We’ve just got to put it behind us and onto the next. That’s something that I preach to the guys while I’m out there, is just to be in the moment. No matter what’s going on, we’ve got to stand tall. They’re not in the end zone until they’re in there, and stuff down the field’s going to happen and it is what it is. We’ve just got to make sure that we respond, try to get the ball back for the offense or just get them off the field.”