After suffering a rib injury against the Saints in mid November, 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown returned to action this past Sunday against Tampa Bay.
Brown, the starting right cornerback before his injury, played as the extra corner in the nickel defensive package, on the left side, and was in on 71 percent of the defensive snaps because the Bucs trailed early.
The bad news for Brown is that former nickel corner Tramaine Brock has claimed his former starting spot at right corner. The good news for the 49ers is that the team’s cornerback corps is now as talented and deep as it’s been in the three years since Jim Harbaugh became head coach.
Over the past four games in the 49ers’ consecutive victories over the Rams, Redskins, Seahawks and Bucs, San Francisco’s defense has been playing at a high level, and the play of the cornerbacks has been a big factor.
Brock and Carlos Rogers now work as the starting tandem, with Brown as the nickel back and veteran Eric Wright – the former Buc picked up this season – as the fourth corner.
Wright, 28, is a former starter in Cleveland, Detroit and Tampa Bay, and has been active for the 49ers’ past six games. Over that span he has an interception, two passes defensed and seven tackles.
“Any defense that has a player of Wright’s quality in a reserve role is a good, deep defense,” wrote ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson this week. “His presence completes a strong group.”
After last season, the 49ers were concerned about their cornerback group, after giving up big chunks of passing yardage to the Falcons and Ravens in the NFC Championhip Game and Super Bowl. They signed veteran Nnamdi Asomugha in the offseason to bolster the group. But veteran nickel corner Chris Culliver suffered a season-ending injury before the season and Asomugha didn’t work out.
Brock, however, has come on strong to become the 49ers’ best cornerback, advancing this season from a reserve, to nickel corner to starting corner, earning a four-year contract extension in the process.
“I’m just trying to make plays and take advantage of the position I’m in,” Brock said recently. “It’s a big season for me. It’s worked out well.”
Brock has four interceptions this season, including two in one game in a victory over the Texans when he returned one for a touchdown. He also has batted away 12 passes and has 27 tackles. He’s started the past four games.
He has been “terrific,” according to ESPN.com’s Williamson, who rates him the “best cornerback on the roster.”
The 10-4 49ers rank No. 4 in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 199.7 yards per game. Some of that has to do with the pressure the 49ers can get on opposing quarterbacks. The Niners have 36 sacks – even playing without top rusher Aldon Smith for a big chunk of the season. And, they hold opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 73.3, which ranks No. 2 in the NFL, only behind Seattle’s 65.5.
On Monday night, however, the 49ers will be tested by Matt Ryan, perhaps the best passer the team has faced since losing to Drew Brees and the Saints on Nov. 17. Though the Falcons (4-10) and Ryan have tumbled significantly since reaching the NFC Championship Game last season, the Falcons have the No. 8 passing attack in the league, averaging 262 yards per game. And the Falcons have long-ball capability, with eight pass plays of 40 or more yards this season.
In the NFC title game vs. the 49ers in January, Ryan completed 30 passes for 396 yards and three TDs, and wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones each had 100 or more receiving yards. It will be interesting to see how the Falcons fare against the 49ers’ re-made and deeper secondary – that includes rookie starting safety Eric Reid -- this time around.