This year, Jon Ledyard and myself will be collaborating our scouting reports. We’ll play to our strengths – he’ll be focusing on the individuals while I’ll be looking at overall scheme. These reports will be broken down into two articles, one for offense and one for defense.
Our reports for the San Francisco 49ers defense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT:
The 49ers’ run a more traditional 3-4. It’s not entirely a two-gap defense, they will occasionally slant, but in the defense mimics the throwback, nod to yesteryear offense. They played a true nose tackle, an actual zero tech, which is uncommon, with a pair of four techs that play head up on the tackle. They don’t have a particularly strong or creative stunt game. Most times I saw it came on third down in subpackage football.
Aaron Lynch is their most versatile piece at linebacker and played the majority of downs, seeing 47 of 56 snaps according to Football Outsiders. He’ll drop in coverage or line up over the slot in some packages. And as Jon pointed out, a dangerous pass rusher.
The 49ers will run some 3-3-5 looks against nickel personnel or they’ll remove an OLB from the box to cover the slot. That’s pretty uncommon at the pro level, especially the former. In their 3-3-5, they’ll pull an outside linebacker off the field, opening up the edge for offenses.
Watch the Minnesota Vikings use trade motion here to get an extra blocker to the OLB displaced side. That’s a big advantage offensively and something I’m looking to attack Sunday. Run some Power out of 11 personnel.
In the secondary, it appears to be primarily a zone look. Lot of single high, cover three, with some Cover 2 with the corners sinking if there’s no vertical threat, effectively turning it into quarters.
San Francisco runs a lot of dime defense. Rookie Jaquiski Tartt was on the field for 20 snaps Monday night. He compares in style and usage to Deone Bucannon in Arizona or for Steelers fans, the way Troy Polamalu was used in 2013. Dime defender that plays near the LOS. For a rookie out of tiny Samford, he’s an impact player and X factor on defense. His ability allows the 49ers to disguise their coverages. They can show a two high shell pre snap but rotate their safeties down while bailing Tartt to the middle third to be the single high defender.
In subpackage football and on passing downs, the 49ers will ramp up their blitz looks. Tartt playing near the line gives them a moveable piece, someone to sugar the A gaps and then retreat back on the snap or fire up the middle and try to get interior pressure. They’ll often combine a linebacker with a safety or a safety in a corner. Love tandem blitzes and as Mike Tomlin said in his Tuesday press conference, love “bogus blitzes” of showing it pre-snap before dropping out. Stresses protection schemes and the quarterback’s ability to accurately read the defense. You don’t really know until post-snap when the QB’s clock has already started.
Here’s the 49ers bringing NaVorro Bowman and Antoine Beathea on a tandem blitz, resulting in a sack.
Teddy Bridgewater was sacked five times in Week One. Three of them by an inside linebacker and two from the safeties. At least Pittsburgh is home next week, taking the crowd factor out of the equation.
Meant to put this with the offensive grouping for the special teams section but I wouldn’t worry too much about Jordan Berry getting his punt blocked. The 49ers are a return-minded, not pressure-minded, return unit that didn’t send more than five or six rushes on their punt return unit.
On the 49ers punting unit, cornerback Dontae Johnson serves as the upback. From what I observed Monday, L.J. McCray and Tartt are the gunners. Both are defensive backs.
One awfully interesting note from rookie punter Bradley Pinion. He had three punts Monday night and all three landed in the right corner, between the number and the sideline. Going through his preseason tape, only two of his punts landed in the left corner while the majority of them drifted to that right side. Have a really good idea of where the ball is going and that should give an advantage for the Steelers’ return unit.
The 49ers’ right gunner always goes wide down the sideline while the left gunner almost always cuts hard inside and tries to cross the jammer’s face. For a right-corner centric punter, that makes sense. Steelers’ should double-vice with their jammers, double-team, and set a physical inside edge to keep the left gunner wide. On the other side, do everything in your power to dissuade the right gunner from reaching the sideline. Get physical with him off the line so he can’t scamper to the sideline.
JON’S INDIVIDUAL REPORT:
Over the past several years, few defenses have inspired more fear in opponents than the San Francisco 49ers’, led by linebacker Patrick Willis, defensive end Justin Smith, and outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Unfortunately for San Francisco, that dominant trio is long gone, Willis and Justin Smith to retirement, and Aldon Smith to Oakland after the 49ers released him due to repeated off-the-field issues.
Several other starters have moved on as well, but if any team was prepared for this day it was the 49ers. Few teams have drafted as savvy and retained as much talent on their depth chart as the Niners, and that foresight has already shown its worth in the team’s Week 1 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
The group is unquestionably led by linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is one of the most impressive defensive players in the NFL. One of the rarest traits of an inside linebacker is the ability to get off blocks, but you see it routinely with Bowman.
The 49ers will use him in a plethora of ways, often sending him on delayed blitzes to take advantage of his quickness and instincts. Bowman is as sure a tackler and as agile a linebacker as there is the game. The Steelers will need to get a hat on him at all times if they want to have success running the football.
The rest of the linebacking corps is a very solid group as well, with Michael Wilhoite taking the other starting linebacker spot next to Bowman. Wilhoite (#57) isn’t as stout as Bowman at the point of attack, but he has great short area quickness to avoid blockers and make stops in the run game. His feet are so active near the line of scrimmage, it often makes it tough to get a good angle on him as a blocker.
Wilhoite’s aggressive all over the field, but he’s learning to harness his intensity with football smarts and assignment sound play. He is typically the linebacker who comes off the field on obvious passing downs, or when the team wants to get an extra safety involved, which is frequent.
Wilhoite and Bowman’s physicality and athleticism working in tandem is a thing of beauty though, as you could clearly see in the first GIF.
Aaron Lynch might be one of the more exciting young edge rushers in the NFL, a fifth-round, second-year player whose off-the-field questions caused his stock to fall on draft weekend. Lynch’s physical tools have always apparent, but he takes too many plays off as a pass rusher, and is still in the beginning stages of learning how to use his hands. He’s quick and has nice dip on the edge though.
Definitely not right tackle T.J. Clemmings’ best work, but still a good job of winning the edge and quickly flattening to the quarterback. When Lynch works hard and uses his technique, he’s tough to block. But he’s content at battling to a stalemate too often, and can get pushed around in the run game. Gets sealed on the edge here by the tight end.
Consistency is a major issue with Lynch, but not so much with Ahmad Brooks. The Niners veteran outside linebacker has a balanced skill set, and while he may not have the pass-rushing tools that Lynch does, he’s very strong and physical on the edge. You almost never see Brooks get sealed and lose contain, and I’ve long-heralded his ability to play assignment sound football as well as be tough at the point of attack.
Losing Aldon Smith dramatically affected the 49ers ability to pressure the pocket with 3-4 rushers, and while Lynch helps offset that weakness a little bit, it was apparent even against a bad offensive line in Minnesota.
We’ve talked about how the Niners will send their inside linebackers on delayed blitzes often, but they also love to send their safeties after the quarterback from all over the field. In fact, Antoine Bethea and Jaquiski Tartt both notched sacks of Teddy Bridgewater on Monday night, the former coming on a well-disguised delayed blitz early in the third quarter.
Bethea is a wily veteran who provides much-needed leadership to a young secondary in San Francisco. Cornerback Tramaine Brock has the potential to be a rising star in the NFL, but this is his first season as a full-time starter. Kenneth Acker, the team’s other starting cornerback, missed all of last season with an injury, but played all 56 defensive snaps the other night, the only defender to not miss a rep along with Bethea, Brock, and strong safety Eric Reid. Reid is a big hitter, but can be undisciplined in coverage and take chances he shouldn’t.
The 49ers will run out three safeties quite often, as Tartt often serves as a pseudo-linebacker in the box thanks to his frame and physicality. The rookie from Samford saw 20 snaps in his NFL debut, while the team’s fourth safety and last year’s first round pick Jimmie Ward continued to get snaps in the slot. And yes, they’ll send him on blitzes too.
The 49ers secondary wasn’t tested much against the Vikings, who have a shortage of threatening offensive weapons to work with. The Steelers endure no such issues, and should present a real challenge for the 49ers defense with a much more aggressive attack. No one player in San Francisco’s secondary has elite cover skills, but working as a unit combined with great disguises and pressure schemes up front, they’re a formidable bunch.
The Niners defensive line is a bunch of space eaters who work hard and are in a constant rotation (Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams tied for the team lead amongst defensive linemen with 36 snaps each on Monday) in order to stay fresh. Eating up blockers to let their linebackers go to work is their job, and they each do it well, especially Williams. Solid, two-gapping nose tackles are hard to find these days, but Williams is a good one. As pass rushers, only reserve Tank Carradine will be an issue on obvious passing downs.
On special teams, punter Bradley Pinion is tasked with the tough charge of replacing one of the best punters in the NFL in Andy Lee, who was traded to the Cleveland Browns this offseason. Pinion hasn’t launched any like Lee could (yet), but he is a very good directional punter who pinned return men to the right sideline on all three of his punts Monday night. The rookie from Clemson also handles kickoff duties, sending every one of his boots to the end zone against Minnesota. One return was attempted, but the ball carrier only made it to the 15 before he was swarmed by Ward and Shayne Skov.
L.J. McCray and Tartt are the right and left gunners, respectively, two sure tacklers who have the length and strength to fight off jammers. McCray overran one return early on, but he made up for it with this big hit on the next punt.
I know, I know, terrible tackling form, but when a guy is not even looking at you, you can take some liberties with lowering the shoulder.