It’s been a tough six years for the San Francisco 49ers. A team once built on power, strength and defence had become a soft, sorry and apathetic unit. Things did improve on the offensive side of the ball when Kyle Shanahan arrived in the summer of 2017. However, mediocrity had sunk it’s long claws into San Francisco’s defence. With a total interception count of 2 all last season and 8 takeaways in total, San Francisco’s defence was a long way away from the fabled stories of ‘Sack Francisco’.
49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had arrived with Shanahan in 2017. Since then the SF defence has been historically bad. Saleh was a devoted disciple of the cover 3 defence, the system that had been so successful for the ‘Legion of Boom’ in Seattle earlier this decade. Whilst the system was similar in San Francisco as it was in Seattle, the personal was not. Coming into this season, it is safe to say that Saleh was on the ‘hot seat’. However, through two weeks in the NFL, the San Francisco defence looks revitalised.
Many will point to the additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. Two talented edge rushers who excel in rushing the passer. Last season, the 49ers were in desperate need for a pass rush. Cassius Marsh was just not getting it done. Against the Buccaneers in week one, both Bosa and Ford registered a sack. In week two against the Bengals Bosa impressed once again, pressuring Andy Dalton into throwing a interception as well as helping contribute to Joe Mixon‘s measly 28 yards rushing.
But its not just personal that has improved this Niner defence. Saleh has made adjustments to the scheme to best suit the players he has. This season, 49ers have implemented the ‘wide 9’ defensive front into the original cover 3 shell. A ‘wide 9’ defence basically means that the four defensive lineman line up extremely wide along the line of scrimmage. Dee Ford and Nick Bosa can be seen lining up extremely wide outside the oppositions tackles. Their job is purely focused on stopping the pass. Bosa and co.’s success has contributed to the resurgence of the SF secondary. Both Akhello Witherspoon and Richard Sherman enjoyed pick sixes against Tampa Bay due to d-line pressure.
Through two games the 49ers have already surpassed their INT total for last season and are only four takeaways from beating their 2018 total.
A weakness of this scheme is the inside run game, something that Tampa Bay exploited in week one gaining 121 yards rushing. While this is something that can be exploited, we are living in a pass happy NFL. Sean McVay, Matt Nagy, Zac Taylor, Andy Reid all want to pass the ball. To help counter a heavy running game, the wide 9 requires speedy, aggressive and versatile linebackers. The 49ers have found all these traits and more in linebacker Kwon Alexander. Alexander was player of the game against Cincinnati having an interception and six tackles.
The depth the 49ers possess along the d-line is also of note. The Niners currently boast:
- DeForest Buckner, NT (1st round pick)
- Nick Bosa, Edge (1st round pick)
- Soloman Thomas, DE (1st round pick)
- Ronald Blair, DE
- D.J. Moore, NT
- Sheldon Day, NT
- Arik Armstead, DE (1st round pick)
- Dee Ford, Edge
That’s a lot of talent to rotate in and out, a tactic the Philadelphia Eagles employed to win the Super Bowl in 2017.
Rob Saleh’s new and improved defence works best in tandem with the offence. I know that may be stating the obvious as every defence plays better when their offence is humming, but with the cover 3 its especially important. The main aim of the cover 3 is to limit big plays and to frustrate quarterbacks into settling for check downs. Hopefully, quarterbacks will start forcing throws deep, something that becomes more likely when a team is down a few scores.
The 49ers will be making their home opener against a Pittsburgh Steelers team in disarray. Ben Roethlisberger‘s injury means that the inexperienced Kyle Rudolph will be making his first career start away from home to a 2-0 team. The Steelers offence is catered to Roethlisberger’s skills of throwing the ball vertically down the field, lots of isolation routes and ‘go up and get it’ balls. The Steelers’ offensive scheme should play right into the hands of the hungry 49ers.
This Sunday, the home fans will be yearning for some good football after six long years lost to the ether. This makes it a pivotal moment in the season for the San Francisco 49ers. If the team is really serious about being a playoff contender and maybe even more than that- they have to win this game.