If you’re a football junkie, you probably abide by specific strategies and tactics that a football team should use to win games.
Some say you need a star quarterback with a square jaw and piercing eyes who can hurl the ball downfield with the flick of a wrist. Others might want to revive an ancient warrior, built like a temple and with the courage of one-thousand men, to play middle linebacker. For me, I’ll take a team chock full of offensive or defensive linemen who can wrestle Brahma bulls and run through a brick building. With those guys ruling the trenches, it’s easy to point a team in the direction of a championship.
Starting in the spring, I was getting excited about the San Francisco 49ers' defensive line. That excitement grew after the team took defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, and then linebacker Reuben Foster, in the first round of this year’s draft. The only positive of three miserable seasons is the 49ers have allowed themselves to gather a cadre of top-tier defensive linemen to anchor a defense.
As they prepare for Arizona, the question isn’t if the 49ers can generate a pass rush to disrupt Arizona's offense; they’ve shown they have the ability and the talent to cause havoc when and where necessary.
A better question: Can the 49ers sustain the pass rush throughout the game, bringing constant pressure through a variety of blitz packages and stunts?
Now Starting: Solomon Thomas
On Monday, the 49ers placed defensive lineman Tank Carradine on injured reserve. Twenty-four hours later, they issued their unofficial Week 4 depth chart and listed Solomon Thomas as the first-team right defensive end. Through three games, Thomas has shown flashes of brilliance and sheer ability, but other times found himself out of position or with an offensive lineman under his pads. There’s no need to fret, as he has a lot of learning to do this season.
Pro Football Focus noted that Carradine is a staple of the 49ers’ defense this season, being on the field for nearly 40 percent of defensive snaps. They’ve also issued him a grade of 79.9, ranking him in the top quarter of edge defenders.
Thomas has not had the pass rush productivity that Carradine brings to the field, so the 49ers need Thomas to produce this weekend. He’s going up against Arizona right tackle John Wetzel, who played well in Week 2 but allowed 13 pressures in Week 1. It’s time for Thomas shrink his learning curve and exploit a questionable tackle on Sunday afternoon.
Collapse the Interior
On Monday night, I caught a bit of the Arizona/Dallas game. In the fourth quarter, I sent a text to my friends stating, “That Arizona offensive line is (expletive).” After checking the Tuesday morning box score and the Pro Football Focus grades, my comment wasn’t too far from gospel.
Against Dallas, Arizona ran 21 times for a total of 49 net rushing yards. That’s just over two yards per rush if you don’t feel like finding a calculator. Dallas also had four tackles behind the line of scrimmage, for a total of nine lost yards for Arizona.
Additionally, Arizona's offensive line surrendered six sacks to Dallas, with three sacks coming on critical fourth-quarter drives.
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has had a hot start to this season and had two run stops and two pressures last week against the Los Angeles Rams. So far, he’s had 16 quarterback pressures, which are the most in the NFL among inside defenders. He and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell are in a position this week to destroy the interior of Arizona's offensive line. If they can keep the guards and center pushed back, this forces quarterback Carson Palmer to move laterally – which isn’t his strong suit – and make poor throws downfield.
It’s Time to Start Blitzing
For whatever reason, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has not dialed up the blitz packages through the first three weeks of the season. Last week, Rams' quarterback Jared Goff found himself under pressure eight times. That’s unacceptable and puts unnecessary stress on a banged-up secondary to make plays.
During Monday night’s game, Palmer’s play dropped when Dallas was not sending pressure. Palmer was 23 of 38 for 255 yards and two touchdowns when not pressured. It’s up to Saleh to flip past page seven of the defensive playbook and start running more exotic looks that send his linebackers through the B or C-gaps. He can’t continue to rely on the aggression of his four-man rush to create pressure on the quarterback. That strategy needs to change this Sunday.
The 49ers can and should generate a successful pass rush against Arizona. In fact, I’d say they are in the best position thus far to be the catalyst for a win this Sunday. But, with any game, it’s a matter of executing the strategy, stepping up for injured players, and significantly increasing the blitz calls from Saleh.