If we told you that next year, your starting quarterback will complete 63.5% of his passes for 3,732 yards, 35 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions for a 105.4 QB rating, would you take it? We’re guessing that probably 99.9% of you would say, “Hell yes!” Those are MVP-type numbers. Well, those are also the numbers that the 49ers Defense allowed against opposing quarterbacks in 2018.
It’s tough to win when you’re playing an MVP quarterback every week, isn’t it? The 49ers found that out the hard way last season, finishing 4-12 and “earning” the #2 pick in this year’s draft.
The goal of any defense in the NFL is to disrupt the offense. Some do that with disguise. Some do that with lots of blitzes. Some jam and re-route wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Some defenses, on the other hand, are able to disrupt by playing a simple style of defense where their players can be free to read, react, attack, and let their talent take over. This is what San Francisco aspires to be.
49ers Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh runs an execution-style defense. The 49ers are a predominant zone coverage team. Similar to what we saw from Seattle’s defense in the first half of this decade, they primarily play cover-3 zone variations. Despite their acquisition of Richard Sherman, they aren’t quite as talented of a unit, though.
To have success with any type of zone coverage, a consistent pass rush from the defensive line is a must. The 49ers were not able to get to the quarterback with any regularity in 2018, though. They ranked 22nd in the NFL with 37 sacks. 8 of those 37 sacks (21.6%) came in one game against the lowly Oakland Raiders.
This was a major contributor to San Francisco generating a league-low 7 turnovers. That is not a typo. The 49ers only created 7 takeaways all season. They were also not very good during the most critical moments of games (namely 3rd down and red zone situations). They were 21st in 3rd-down efficiency and 26th in red-zone scoring %. Quarterbacks were simply way too comfortable in the moments that define most NFL games.
We don’t have time to show all 579 pass attempts the 49ers faced this season. The below two plays are pretty good representations of what we saw most of the time, though.
3rd and 12 vs. the Rams:
Red-zone touchdown vs. the Chiefs:
That’s way too much time to throw on both plays.
There were certainly bright spots for the 49ers Defense this season. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner finished the year with 12.0 sacks. But many of those were coverage sacks or plays where he was chasing the quarterback late in the down. It’s definitely important to make those types of plays, but the 49ers were missing the presence of a pass rusher who could provide immediate pressure inside or off the edge. This is exactly what you need if you are going to rely on zone coverage as much as the 49ers do.
Coverage and the pass rush have to work in tandem. For example, the Patriots generated pressure this season with players who were more on the strong and powerful end of the spectrum than the quick and slashing end. They used stunts that were a little slow to develop. They could do this because their defensive backs often jammed and re-routed receivers at the line of scrimmage, which disrupted the timing of the passing game and forced the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer.
The 49ers don’t play that way. For the most part, they don’t jam receivers at the line. They allow free releases (as you saw above). They can’t rely on slower developing pressure. They need instant penetration that forces the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly. They need a consistent pass rush that enables their corners to sit on routes and anticipate throws. That’s their ticket to generating turnovers.
The 49ers’ biggest offseason moves should address this area.
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