Imagine you were an offensive coordinator in the NFL last season making your typical Monday morning drive to the team facility. Yesterday’s victory bounced around in your head as you sipped a hot coffee. At a stop light, this Sunday’s game plan started to creep in your thoughts.
Wait… this week? Who is this week?
“Hey, Siri… who are we playing on Sunday?”
“You’re playing the one-win San Francisco 49ers.”
The 2016 San Francisco 49ers: the team with a run defense equal to the dexterity of a decades-old paper target on a Navy SEAL rifle range. Watching the defensive line play last year was a painful exercise; hopefully, someone finds Jim O’Neil’s ‘schemes’ and fires them into the depths of infinite space.
This year, defensive coordinator Rob Saleh brings a 4-3 defense marching into Levi’s Stadium, which differs from last year’s 3-4 defense.
In a 3-4, a defensive lineman patrols two gaps. This means if you’re playing nose tackle, you’re in charge of the A-gaps on either side of the center. Some teams excel in a two-gap system, but that was not last year’s 49ers.
In a 4-3 defense, a defensive lineman shows complete domination over just one gap, seeking and destroying a woeful ball carrier who dares seek passage. Lineman can slightly shift position at the line of scrimmage, depending on the call or strength of the formation. Therefore, a 4-3 demands a more versatile lineman who can play on the interior or outside the tackle. There is greater responsibility placed upon the linebackers in a 4-3 to clean up the gaps and de-cleat running backs and quarterbacks alike.
The 49ers have quietly built a formidable defensive line through draft choices and the free agent market. According to Eli Harold, “It’s one man. Everybody has a gap. It allows everyone to play fast. I know we tend to say that every year, but this really does allow us to play fast. You’ve got guys like Arik (Armstead), DeForest (Buckner) and Tank (Carradine) who are playing the positions that they were built to play.”
Today, the 49ers have two nose tackles – Quenton Dial and Earl Mitchell – and list seven players as defensive linemen. Considering the grind of a 16 game season, expect seven defensive linemen to make the final roster.
Last season, Dial played anything from a zero to an eight-technique but spent most of his time as a true interior lineman. In four seasons with the team, Dial has 78 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He’s made 32 starts over 46 games. The 49ers signed Earl Mitchell to a 4-year, $16 million contract to compete with Dial. Mitchell brings seven years, and approximately 100 games, of experience to the defensive line, along with a career 128 tackles. Rookie DJ Jones, a sixth-round choice in this year’s draft, stated he could play at the nose or a three-technique. His scouting report shows a player who fell off last season, but can “flourish as a one-gapping nose with three-down ability.” Jones may find himself on the practice squad if Dial and Mitchell play well during the preseason.
Ronald Blair suited up for 16 games during his rookie year. He ended the 2016 season with 11 tackles and three sacks, almost equaling Tank Carradine’s career sack total. Additionally, game film shows Blair playing nearly every position on the defensive line from nose to nine.
Arik Armstead, DeForrest Buckner and Solomon Thomas will make this year’s 53-man roster, but more intriguing is what the coaching staff has in store for these three mighty men. Buckner plays anywhere on the line from a one-technique to a six-technique. Thomas can play an inside technique or an eight or nine-technique with no problems. Armstead, an edge rusher, should fit nicely playing a six to nine position.
Chris Jones, a defensive tackle, signed with the 49ers last November. He started against the Dolphins and the following five games, registering at least one tackle in each match. The film shows Jones playing anywhere from a three to eight-technique, or simply right over the B-gap. He showed flashes of good play, but too often he’s getting blown off the ball by the offensive line. With Thomas playing nearly any position on the line, there’s no reason Chris Jones remains on the final roster.
This season, the 49ers need Dial and Carradine to hit a stride and see an uptick in play. Unfortunately, neither player has done anything remarkable since joining the scarlet and gold. Dial played in 14 games last year and did not a register a single quarterback sack. A 4-3 defense brings more double team blocks to the nose tackle, which Dial struggles to shed and make a play.
Carradine has played in 36 games in three seasons, but only has one career start in 2015. Since entering the league in 2014, Carradine averages 13 tackles per game and less than one sack per season. As the summer moves forward, Saleh has to ask if he can get more from Dial this season, or if he should gamble on DJ Jones.
As the Lynch-Shanahan Era of Good Feelings continues, there’s a slim possibility the 49ers keep shedding Baalke holdovers. It’s minuscule, but both Dial and Carradine could end up on the chopping block. The lack of sacks in 2016 from both players is concerning. However, Dial signed a three-year extension in February 2016, and Jed must be tired of paying players and coaches who are no longer with the franchise.
Defensive linemen receive little to no glory but can make or break your defense. If you cannot find the right positions or rotation, then the quarterback can avoid the blitz and find the glaring weak points in the coverage. But, there’s plenty of time for Saleh to be the alchemist and find the winning defensive line formula.
Game Film watched
2016 vs. Arizona
2016 vs. Miami