Charlotte 49ers are off to a great start, but issues on defense are holding them back

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The Charlotte 49ers’ high-octane offense has kept them competitive in every game, but the defense must find ways to limit the damage in order to bring the first conference championship to the Queen City.

Six weeks into the season, Charlotte leads Conference USA’s East Division and has a real shot at competing for a conference championship in December. The 49ers’ main competition in the East, Marshall, Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic, all remain on the schedule, with FAU coming to Charlotte for a crucial matchup on Oct. 21.

All three competitors rank in the top four of total offense in C-USA, with Western Kentucky leading the bunch at 550 yards and 40 points per game.

Charlotte has the eighth-best red-zone defense in the nation, holding opponents to just 11 scores on 17 red-zone appearances, three of which are field goals. The “bend-but-don’t-break” mentality has been effective for the 49ers in spurts, but it’s the big play that is hurting Charlotte.

“You could feel some guys get a little frustrated with the one-on-one shots. They (FIU) were scoring so fast,” Will Healy said following the first road win of the season. “You expect more out of our guys. I want to finish better. We demand and expect a lot out of these guys because we’ve seen that they’re capable of doing it.”

Marcus West and Brandon Cooper’s defense has allowed 10 touchdowns of 30 yards or more through six games, seven of which have gone for more than 50 yards. The red-zone statistic seems less important when opponents can score from any spot on the field.

With a week of rest before the matchup with FAU, the 49ers are getting healthy with the return of defensive tackle Mikel Horton and linebacker Derek Boykins. Horton was slated to miss the entire season with a torn Achilles but made a quick recovery, debuting last week against Florida International.

The 49ers are playing eight new starters on defense with multiple new additions via the transfer portal. Many on the defense had never started a game before the 2021 season, let alone playing extended reps as a unit.

Here is a midseason review of the 49ers’ defense:

RUN DEFENSE

Getting this one out of the way first feels necessary. The 49ers’ run defense has been bad, and up until its best performance of the season against Florida International, it was historically bad.

Charlotte’s ability, or lack thereof, to stop the run ranks them 124th in the nation and dead last in C-USA (221.67 yards per game). The 49ers’ only two losses came against Georgia State and Illinois, games in which Charlotte allowed a combined 16 completed passes. But 620 total rushing yards were given up in the two losses at over 6 yards per carry. Opposing offenses have beaten the 49ers exclusively on the ground.

Charlotte has seen four opponents post career-best performances against them, starting in Week 1 with Mateo Durant rushing for 255 yards and three touchdowns. The most recent was Max Bortenschlager, Florida International’s quarterback who threw for 466 yards and four touchdowns.

The 49ers have given up 280 yards or more on the ground in three games and allowed two individual rushers over the 250-yard mark.

According to Pro Football Focus, of those that have played 50 or more snaps, Charlotte has 10 players with a run defense grade of 51 or less, including starters Kofi Wardlow (50.5), Solomon Rogers (43), Luke Martin (42.5) and Bryan Wallace (28.7).

Midway through the year, there isn’t necessarily a quick fix for the defensive woes. But there is a silver lining. The 49ers are plus-3 in the turnover margin, ranking 37th in the nation. Charlotte has recovered seven fumbles this season, ranking 10th in the country and top three in C-USA.

Linebacker Tyler Murray forced and recovered a fumble in the Week 1 victory over Duke and leads the 49ers’ defense with 43 tackles on the season. Murray is the vocal leader of the defense but ranks ninth on the team in defensive grade with a rating of 60.7 (PFF).

After allowing 336 yards on the ground against Illinois, Charlotte posted its best performance of the season stopping the run against Florida International, holding the Panthers to just 72 yards.

If the 49ers are to achieve their goals of winning a bowl game and competing for the C-USA title, it all hinges on limiting the damage on the ground.

PASS DEFENSE

Charlotte’s pass defense ranks 62nd in the nation, allowing 223 yards per game. Allowing 223 yards through the air doesn’t seem atrocious until you delve into how many passes are being attempted, and what the average yards per completion are.

The 49ers’ secondary is allowing 15.06 yards per completion, the second-worst in the nation. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging 8.82 yards per attempt, which puts Charlotte in the bottom 10 of the FBS.

All of this to say, the 49ers’ defense is struggling. Teams are running more, which skews the average passing yards per game allowed. But when teams decide to pass, explosive plays are equally as prominent.

Strong individual performances have come from defensive end Markees Watts, linebacker Justin Whisenhunt and defensive end Tyson Clawson getting after opposing quarterbacks in the past two weeks. Boykins made his debut against Illinois in Week 5 and ranks second on the team with a defensive grade of 78.2 and a tackling grade of 81.2.

As far as the secondary is concerned, the 49ers haven’t been as effective as advertised. Losing Tank Robinson for the season in Week 1 hurt, and backup safety Solomon Rogers’ PFF grades are among the worst on the team. Duke transfer Antone Williams converted from safety to corner and hasn’t seen the field at all this season after starting all six games last year.

Charlotte’s starting cornerback duo of Geovante Howard and Trey Creamer has shown flashes, but both have been beaten deep repeatedly. Howard was coined as a “lockdown corner” ahead of the season but posts the second-worst coverage grade on the team at 44.5.

Shedrick Ursery (69.9), Lance McMillan (69.3) and Creamer (63.6) have the highest coverage ratings of corners on the roster, with the latter seeing the most snaps at 207. Ursery and Creamer have three pass deflections and 10 solo tackles each on the season.

To put it in perspective, Ursery and McMillan rank in the top 15 of C-USA in coverage rating, but neither see starting reps. Howard and reserve corner Valerian Agbaw have allowed three touchdowns each, with Agbaw averaging a 75% completion percentage when he’s in coverage. That is not good.

One bright spot of the 49ers’ secondary has been Kansas State transfer Jon Alexander. He has been as good as advertised, leading the team in solo tackles (22) and forced turnovers (three). Alexander leads the defense in defensive grade (78.3), run defense (83.8), tackling (87.6), and pressure grade (80.9).

Charlotte has shown it can get off the field on third and fourth down in opportune times, but the statistics are middle of the pack. The 49ers are 53rd in the nation in third-down stop percentage, allowing a conversion 36% of the time. Opponents are converting fourth-down attempts 66% of the time, ranking 96th in the country. Alexander’s interception returned for a touchdown against FIU was the 49ers’ first defensive touchdown since 2019.

GRADING CHARLOTTE’S DEFENSE

Defense: D+. While the 49ers’ defense has been one of the worst in the conference allowing over 445 yards per game, it’s only giving up 25 points per contest. The 49ers have shown they can force turnovers and make crucial stands, but solving the riddle that is the run defense will make or break this team. It’s a young group, and they’ll need a second-half defensive surge like in 2019 to keep the 49ers’ championship hopes alive.

Run Defense: F. There really isn’t much to say here. This is the Achilles’ heel of the 49ers and has been since Healy took charge in 2019.

Pass Defense: C-. Charlotte has already doubled its sack total from 2020 with 12. The secondary passes the eye test until diving into the statistics. The defensive scheme is leaving plenty of one-on-one matchups on the perimeter, and opposing offenses are taking advantage. When Charlotte limits the big play, the red-zone defense is bailing them out.

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