If you told anyone that the San Francisco 49ers would be as good as they are at the moment, they would’ve laughed at you. From a schematic as well as a cultural standpoint, San Francisco’s turnaround from sub-mediocrity to the greatest of greats is simply one of the most historic transformations in league history.
Last season, San Francisco fell apart after quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the emergence of All-Pro tight end George Kittle was a sight to behold for a 3-13 team who many thought would finally break out in 2018.
Earlier this offseason, I wrote an article (linked at the bottom) about the rebirth of the once-dominant 49ers front-7. I detailed how their front office made a consistent commitment towards acquiring depth at both defensive line and linebacker during free agency and the draft.
In that very piece, I also predicted that San Francisco would have a top 5-10 defense this season. Along with that bold prediction, I predicted many things that were proven correct, and many that were proven incorrect. So, let’s take a second to reflect upon what I was right on, and what I was right on.
Where I Was Right
While I predicted the 49ers would have a top 5-10 defense, not even I could have seen the monster that every contender will have to go through in order to reach Miami. San Francisco ranks 1st in yards per game, 9th in points per game (difference between 9th and 3rd is 1 point), 5th in sacks (47), and 8th in total points. So, in almost every category, San Francisco improved dramatically, leading to one of the best defenses in the league.
Where I Was Wrong
My overall prediction was correct, but there were several facets within my reasoning that turned out to be incorrect. First, my postulation that Rashan Gary would be the correct fit in San Francisco was completely incorrect. I did have Nick Bosa (who San Francisco thankfully drafted) in my mock draft at the time, but I did feel like Gary’s athleticism would be a better fit for Robert Saleh’s defense.
San Francisco indeed took Bosa, and now that he is the favorite for the NFL Defensive Rookie of The Year, it appears that he was the perfect pick for them in hindsight. Bosa has registered almost 70 pressures, and has totaled 9 sacks along with a forced fumble.
My prediction also overrated the talent of Solomon Thomas as a player. Not only has his snap share declined this season, but he’s also been fairly unproductive this season as both an edge rusher and a defensive tackle. Furthermore, when the NFL interviewed the 49ers’ defensive line as a whole, the 5 they chose were Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and D.J. Jones (not Thomas). Yikes….
What I Didn’t See Coming
While the 49ers’ front 7 undoubtedly has a tremendous amount of defensive talent, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has implemented a unique formation called the “Wide-9”. Because San Francisco runs a 4-3 (4 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers) in their base defense, the “9” comes from 4 defensive linemen, 2 or 3 linebackers, and 2 or 3 cornerbacks (depending on the package). In this formation, everyone who lines up within 5-10 yards of the line of scrimmage is accounted for.
However, the specialty of this defense is its alignment. Notice how “wide” the defensive ends are lined up (9-technique), when compared to the defensive tackles. This formation makes it much easier for defensive ends to bend around offensive tackles, thus creating a wider path to the quarterback while collapsing the pocket. The quarterback then has nowhere to go and is forced to step up into a collapsing pocket, where the defensive linemen converge.
The 49ers are able to generate so many pressures and sacks because their edge rushers can easily bend around offensive tackles and disrupt the pocket. In fact, I think the 49ers acquired Dee Ford from the Chiefs because they needed a pass rusher with flexibility and bend to consistently get around those edges, and Ford is that kind of player.
All that said, just because a certain formation is effective at one thing doesn’t mean it is exempt from weakness. The aforementioned gap between the ends and the tackles not only creates easier rush lanes on passing downs, but also leaves exploitable holes for the running game, and this brings me to my next point.
Gap discipline is incredibly important for this formation to work against the run, and the versatility of the 49ers’ defensive linemen works in favor of this. Regardless of playcall, down, and distance, San Francisco can play almost any combination of defensive linemen at any position, which contributes to a fantastic rotation (or at least it did before injury).
Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead can all play either 3-technique defensive tackle or 9-technique defensive end, and Saleh’s packages allow for them to rotate along the defensive line so other key pieces such as nose tackles D.J. Jones and Sheldon Day can give the starters a rest. Not all of them have the numbers to show productivity, but the way they shed blocks and fill in the empty gaps contributes to sound run defense, especially in this formation.
Another core tenet of the Wide 9 is the responsibility of the inside linebackers. Whether the defense is in nickel or in base, the inside linebackers always need to read blocks correctly and flow towards the football. I thought the signing of Kwon Alexander would really improve this linebacker core, but I never saw the 49ers’ defense as a unit improving to this extent. Furthermore, after Alexander’s unfortunate injury, Fred Warner has played tremendously, and I believe a First-Team All-Pro selection is definitely warranted.
Warner balled out in the month of November after taking over Alexander’s former role, and rookie Dre Greenlaw has quietly had a great season in Warner’s former role. All in all, the versatility of the 49ers’ defensive linemen along with improved linebacker play are two significant aspects to this defense that I never saw coming.
All in all, San Francisco’s record speaks for the stellar improvement on their defense. Even though they are not my pick to win the NFC, it would not surprise me in the slightest if the 49ers, led by that front-7, annihilates the entire NFC en route to the Super Bowl.
Link to my original article: https://thesportswave.net/2019/04/25/san-francisco-just-built-a-masterpiece-under-the-nfls-nose/