Meet Talanoa Hufanga, San Francisco's Latest Stud Defender
NFL Week 3 - Two weeks into the NFL season and there is already another gremlin on the loose in San Francisco. A fifth-round pick in 2021, Talanoa Hufanga has stepped effortlessly into Jaquiski Tartt's starting safety role in the 49ers defense. It's not supposed to be easy to replace a five-year starter like Tartt, but with the way Hufanga has played through the baby stages of the season, the 49ers defense looks like it has not missed a beat.
Hufanga showed flashes of promise as a rookie a year ago and ended up No. 16 on the Top 25 Prospects list in Football Outsiders Almanac 2022. When Tartt missed three games during the middle of the season, Hufanga answered the call and proved himself an NFL player. He did not have the same consistency or understanding of the 49ers defense that Tartt had shown, but you couldn't help but be a little intrigued by the 6-foot-even, 200-pound bullet flying around San Francisco's secondary.
This is the kind of promise Hufanga showed in his first season. Hufanga is at the top of the screen aligned over running back Darrell Henderson as the outside receiver in trips. With how the rest of San Francisco's defensive backs are aligned, you know this is man coverage and Hufanga is not going to get any help from any direction. He doesn't need it anyway. The split-second Akers angles himself inside by pushing off his right foot, Hufanga drives on the one-step slant and takes a sledgehammer to his target. Henderson never had a chance at catching that ball.
Even when Tartt returned to the lineup, Hufanga earned at least 35% of the team's defensive snaps over the next four games as a rotational player and third safety. A minor knee injury threw a wet blanket over the rest of his season, but those seven weeks of play were enough. After Hufanga scored a touchdown on a blocked punt against Green Bay in the playoffs, the 49ers had seen all they needed to let Tartt walk and insert Hufanga right into the starting lineup for 2022.
Hufanga has done nothing but ball out to open his first season as a full-time starter. As a box defender, Hufanga has been one of San Francisco's best weapons against the run and has killed a number of screen passes before they had any chance of getting to the line of scrimmage. His ability to process and trigger as quick as a wink is one thing, but he also has a rare sense for how to navigate tight spaces and a hunger for violence. It's hard to look the part as a pseudo-linebacker next to the 49ers' other powerhouses at the position, but he finds a way.
The Bears shift their formation all around before the snap, getting the 49ers to respond by flipping their down safety (Hufanga, 29) and linebacker alignments to match the strength of the formation again. Right after everyone is set, the Bears snap the ball to try to catch the 49ers in a trance after all the movement, but Hufanga is unphased. Hufanga is already moving downhill by the time the ball hits Justin Fields' hands. The receiver coming from the side of the screen has no shot at getting to Hufanga in time, leaving the young safety to take a clean one-on-one shot at a startled David Montgomery for a tackle for loss.
Earlier in the game, Hufanga had to kick inside to play like a linebacker over the A gap. The Bears motion out of a 2x2 set to get trips into the field with a nub tight end to the short side. Instead of moving Hufanga all the way over or rotating him to the middle of the field to then have Tashaun Gipson (31) come down to the trips side, the 49ers just bump everyone over a gap. Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw (99) does an awesome job holding the left guard so he cannot climb to the second level, freeing up Hufanga to slip right in for the run stuff.
Hufanga kept it rolling against Seattle. With a more balanced offensive approach out of the Seahawks than the Bears showed, there were not quite as many opportunities for Hufanga to unleash himself in the run game, but he still made good on his chances.
The last Bears clip was an example of Kinlaw helping Hufanga, but it's the other way around this time. Hufanga starts in a shallow alignment compared to the two linebackers next to him, sitting with his heels only four-and-a-half yards off the ball. Like always, Hufanga triggers on the run action right away. The left guard cannot help but feel Hufanga's presence immediately, forcing him to come off the double team a step earlier than he probably wanted to. Not only does Hufanga still dip under the guard anyway, but he is able to regain his balance and knock the center back a step thanks to the double team effort being cut short. Between Hufanga getting through the B gap (outside the guard) and Kinlaw standing the center up, the running back had nowhere to go but to cut back right into Arik Armstead's (91) waiting arms.
As incredible as Hufanga has been as a box defender thus far, that part of his game was somewhat expected given his profile at USC. He was always a streetfighter who wanted to play downhill and near the line of scrimmage, it was just a matter of how valuable that would be in today's NFL and if the rest of his skill set could come together to let his presence as a box defender really shine.
At least so far, Hufanga has taken that step to becoming a more complete player. Hufanga's growth as a coverage defender in his second season has propelled him from intriguing rookie to Pro Bowl candidate. His performance against the Seahawks suggests he has enough in his coverage toolbox now.
San Francisco answers Seattle's empty set with a split-field pressure look from the short side of the field. With Dre Greenlaw (57) blitzing from the weak slot at the top of the screen and the other safety needing to stay in his half until all three receivers to his side declare themselves on underneath routes, Hufanga is effectively isolated on the weak slot receiver. Once the ball is snapped, Geno Smith sees the strong safety stay in his half and thinks he can nail his slot receiver over the middle. Hufanga never allows that window to open up. Hufanga remains patient throughout the receiver's vertical stem, turns inside in lockstep with the receiver, and remains in a perfect trail position to undercut the throw. The only way to place the ball away from Hufanga would have been to throw it right towards the strong safety poaching back to the middle of the field.
Later in the game, Hufanga broke up another pass from a more top-down position. Somehow, the Seahawks only put 10 men on the field for this play, but you still get a glimpse of Hufanga's trigger and tenacity at the catch point. Aligned over the right hash, Hufanga slightly expands himself with the receiver trying to work outside of Greenlaw, but he is quick to see the receiver cut back inside and nails down on the crossing route. At around the 40-yard line, the receiver peeks at Hufanga and feels him driving inside, so he settles the route and tries to give Smith a window on his outside shoulder, but it does not matter. Hufanga gets there just in time and reaches over the receiver's body to punch the ball down.
Everything Hufanga does happens at 100 miles per hour. Run fits in the box, tackling on the perimeter, blowing up screens, driving on the ball in coverage, all of it. Hufanga plays with unshakable confidence about where the ball is going and he has the athletic tools to beat it there. In a defense filled with psychotic speed demons, Hufanga not only looks like he belongs, but has already stood out as one of the unit's most unhinged and effective players.
Now Hufanga and the rest of the 49ers defense just need to prove themselves against stronger opponents. Save for a few bizarre blunders, the 49ers defense has been a shutdown crew in both phases of the game. These next two weeks against the Broncos and Rams will give the 49ers defense the chance to show the league what they are made of, and a big stage for Hufanga to emerge as one of the league's most exciting safeties.