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SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 3: San Francisco 49ers’ Talanoa Hufanga (29) celebrates his interception and touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams in the fourth quarter at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 3: San Francisco 49ers’ Talanoa Hufanga (29) celebrates his interception and touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams in the fourth quarter at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)


It’s the principle at the heart of Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

The 49ers’ head coach and offensive play-caller isn’t simply calling plays at random — he’s isolating certain players on the opposing defense and calling plays that put them in unwinnable positions.

To be great on defense, you have to be incisive. Save for generational players, there’s not enough time to think and attack. So Shanahan flusters defenses by forcing defensive players to make choices in the open field.

And as Shanahan’s style of offense spreads around the NFL via his coaching tree and copycats, we’re seeing more offensive play callers build offenses behind the principle of conflict.

Against the 49ers’ defense, there’s one player, as of late, that’s being pushed into the fray again and again.

Niners safety Talanoa Hufanga is a critical reason why San Francisco’s defense was the best in the NFL this season. He’s incredible near the line of scrimmage — his run-stopping ability is perhaps unparalleled at his position. Without him, it’s hard to imagine the Niners’ being the best run defense in the NFL.

Early in the Niners’ campaign, Hufanga’s hard hits in the run game and opportunism in the passing game set a tone for the defense. He was everywhere on the field in the fall, and where he went, he made his presence known.

But Hufanga’s presence has been felt in a different way in recent weeks.

Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller (83) catches a 24-yard touchdown pass while being defended by San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga (29) during the first half of an NFL football game between the San Francisco 49ers and Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
(AP Photo/David Becker) 

The book is out on the safety who plays more like a strong-side linebacker, and teams are targeting him in the pass game.

He’s the player they’re placing in conflict.

It hasn’t gone well.

Heading into the postseason, the 49ers are the oddsmakers’ favorites to win the NFC. But Hufanga is the Niners’ ultimate X-factor. If he plays well in these playoffs, the 49ers’ defense is strong enough to carry the team to a Super Bowl victory.

The Pro Bowler could also be why the Niners’ season ends earlier than expected.

San Francisco 49ers' Talanoa Hufanga (29) chases Washington Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) out of the pocket in the first half at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
(Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

We all know that quarterback play is critical in the postseason.

But I posit that it’s equally critical to have excellent safety play if you want to win a Super Bowl.

It’s a tough thing to ask the average fan to care about — after all, safeties are rarely on the screen when you watch the game on TV.

But safeties are the defense’s last line of defense. They should also be the most versatile players on the field. In this pass-first league — where one broken coverage can change the entire game — safties define the defense.

The Niners loved the definition Hufanga provided the team’s defense early in the season. Clearly, Pro Bowl voters did, too.

But in four of the Niners’ last six games, Hufanga has made at least one overt error that has resulted in a touchdown. If not for that great start to the season, his recent play would be downright benchable.

Heading into the playoffs, the Niners can only wonder which Hufanga will be defining their defense.

• Miami, Week 13: On the first play of the game, the Dolphins put Tyreek Hill in motion behind the line of scrimmage, running to the outside receiver spot, with Trent Sherfield in the slot. After the ball was snapped, Hufanga, playing in the defensive backfield as a two-high safety, went with Hill, who was already covered by Charvarious Ward. Hufanga spun and was facing the Niners’ end zone when the ball was thrown. Sherfield was uncovered on his slant over the middle. He kept running for a 75-yard touchdown. Later in the game, he ran with Sherfield on the same route, only to let Hill go behind him, resulting in a 45-yard touchdown.

• Seattle, Week 15: In the fourth quarter, tight end Noah Fant ran right up to Hufanga. He then ran right past him for a 10-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that made the game interesting. There was no one else for Hufanga to defend, and no one behind him to pick up Fant. The Niners’ safety just decided to stand in place for the easiest catch-and-throw of the game for Seattle.

• Washington, Week 16: Arguably Hufanga’s worst game of the season. Not only was he arguably responsible for multiple big-yardage catches and two passing touchdowns (including another play where he just didn’t defend the man who was clearly his mark), but he also made some overtly questionable plays in the run game, too.

• Las Vegas, Week 17: Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels clearly noticed Hufanga’s game against Washington. McDaniels’ game plan called for the Raiders to attack Hufanga early and often. The first drive of the game ended in an easy catch-and-throw between quarterback Jarrett Stidham and tight end Darren Waller. A simple play-action bootleg was all that was needed to get Hufanga to drive towards the quarterback. Two false steps in, and Waller was behind him. The safety stood no chance of catching up. In an embarrassing defensive showing for the 49ers, Hufanga was put in conflict repeatedly, to repeated success for the Raiders. Two of Las Vegas’ touchdowns came from Hufanga trying to sack the quarterback, only to have the ball thrown over his head to an open receiver.

In all, Hufanga has an average Pro Football Focus rating of 59 of 100 over the last six games. That’s below replacement level. And the reason his rating is so low is because he has an average coverage grade of 58.

Whether you buy into PFF’s ratings or not, it’s clear that opposing offensive coordinators have taken notice of Hufanga’s coverage challenges, and he has done nothing to discourage those attacks.

To the Niners’ coaches’ credit, they are fully aware of the issue. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans — who has consistently given guarded and milquetoast press conferences since being promoted to the role — didn’t pull any punches when he was asked about Hufanga’s play following the Raiders game.

He went all-in on the safety in way I had never heard him publically talk about a player before:

“He has to clean up his eyes,” Ryans said. “It’s too many big plays we’re giving up, and Huf knows that… You’re the eraser for us. Your eyes can’t be dirty, you can’t be in the backfield and he knows that, and he has to get better at it.”

“Everybody will make plays in our defense when everybody is playing with discipline, playing with the proper technique, playing with the proper eyes, eye discipline. If everybody is doing that, there’s enough plays for everybody to go around, so when guys do get antsy and they try to do too much, they try to play hero ball. You try to make plays that you’re not supposed to make, that’s when you get gutted as a defense, so defensive football, you want to be sound, you want to play great defense, you have to be disciplined at all three levels.”

The Niners’ are a team that wants to mix up defensive coverages — an adjustment following Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes carving them up in Week 7, when they remained in Cover 3 defenses for most of the game.

To do that, you need to have safeties that can do it all on the field — guys who can cover and thump.

Hufanga can be that player. We’ve seen him be that player. He can be a game-changer of the highest order for a talent-filled defense.

But heading into the playoffs, we don’t know if Hufanga will change the game for the Niners’ betterment or detriment.

And if safties, like quarterbacks, are indeed destiny in the postseason, that’s a scary question to be asking before the Wild Card round.

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