Talanoa Hufanga could be out for the year with a torn ACL, and Ji’Ayir Brown steps in at the moment that will define the 49ers regular season, the three-game gauntlet of Seattle, Philadelphia and Seattle.
The next three games will likely determine the Niners playoff seed and if they get any rest prior to the post-season. If they sweep the Seahawks, the Niners can clinch the division prior to their final game and rest the starters against the Rams, in essence creating a bye before the playoffs.
The gauntlet begins in Seattle Thanksgiving night, where they catch a break, just a 10% chance of rain now but it will be cold in the low 40s. Philadelphia December 3rd light rain, Santa Clara December 10th for the Seattle rematch and more rain.
Brown getting starter reps in practice will build his confidence and competitive mindset for the upcoming games. He is accustomed to pressure.
When the Niners traded up for Brown in the third round, draft analysts saw him as a Hufanga clone, a ball hawk playmaker who compensated for his lack of speed with an instinctual feel for the game.
He was one of my draft crushes, I have a strong bias for playmakers with ball skills, but beyond that, Brown has an essential quality that I think is often overlooked.
UCLA coaching legend John Wooden created the term competitive greatness, he defined it as an athlete that plays his best when it matters most. This trait is shared by the legends in every sport from Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe and Curry to Gretzky, Pele, Brady, Bolt and Ali.
The Niners benefited from competitive greatness and in my view Bill Walsh and John McVay sought it out. Montana, Young, Rice, Taylor, Craig, Lott, and Wright. At their best in the biggest games.
At Penn State, Brown was a team captain and the 2023 Rose Bowl Defensive MVP. He led the team in tackles with eight, had an interception, 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss. Brown was the leading tackler against Ohio State and Michigan. Competitive greatness.
That should ease concerns about this moment of the gauntlet possibly being too big for a rookie.
PRODUCTION AND BLITZING
Brown will still make rookie mistakes as he did in his first play against Tampa, but he responded with an interception, four tackles and three pass breakups including the PBU that sealed the win.
Like Hufanga, Brown has the ball skills and instincts to make big plays at big times. What he may be able to provide that Hufanga did not is the ability to finish blitzes. Hufanga can get to the quarterback quickly but he struggles to wrap him up. At Penn State, Brown was a finisher in sacks and tackles for loss.
It’s also worth noting that Brown was the hand-picked choice of Niners defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Brown’s ability to finish as a blitzer may have been part of why. I would hope that Wilks follows through on that and tries Brown as a blitzer soon. Wilks knows what Brown can and can’t do, which should help both succeed.
Brown steps onto the field just as the Niners face teams with high quality receivers in volume. D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and Jaxson Smith-Njigba in Seattle paired with Zach Charbonnet. A.J. Brown having an All-Pro season in Philly along with DaVante Smith and a great run game led by DeAndre Swift and Jalen Hurts. Brown will be tested at the highest level of competition.
I’m not expecting Brown to play flawlessly, but I am expecting him to rise to the challenge, as he always has.