Coach Yoast: All right, now, I don't want them to gain another yard! You blitz... all... night! If they cross the line of scrimmage, I'm gonna take every last one of you out! You make sure they remember, forever, the night they played the Titans!
--Will Patton Remember the Titans,(2000)
An amazing defense can take the pressure off any offense. We’ve seen championships built on great defenses like the 2000 Ravens and the 2015 Broncos, they each won their Super Bowls with subpar quarterback play but amazing defenses. But we’ve also seen that a poor defense can hurt a team, such as the 2016 New Orleans Saints, had the second-best offense in points, the second-worst defense in points and ended the season with a 7-9 record.
Entering into his second year as the defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh will continue with his, “Extreme Violence!” and “All gas, no breaks!” style defense. But every good defense starts in the trenches, the defensive line versus the offensive line, and in order to grade how well the 49ers defensive line did last year, I came up with three categories: sacks, rushing yards, third and fourth down conversions.
The 2017 49ers Defensive Line
Based on the criteria that I set out to use for my ranking, the 49ers defensive line was not that good last season. They were 26th in sacking the quarterback with only 30 sacks all season; they were 22nd in stopping the run, and 31st on third-and fourth-down conversions.
Now I have shown in past articles how the 49ers defense improved over the last five games of the 2017 season in terms of points and yards given up. They were 28th in the first 12 weeks, but tenth and seventh respectively in those final five games.
But once again using our criteria even in the final five weeks of the season, they were 17th in sacks, and 24th in third and fourth down conversions. They did however improve on stopping the run as they ranked fourth in the final five weeks.
Will the 2018 Defensive Line be an improvement?
The 49ers lacked a pass rush last season, again ranked 26th, and the 49ers will be expecting more out of their second-year starter in Solomon Thomas, who managed only 34 tackles and three sacks last season. They also signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year deal and gave Cassius Marsh, who they acquired in November of last season to a two-year deal.
The defense last season was lackluster at best, but saw improvements towards the end of the season as players began to gel with each other. I believe with the complete off-season and if Solomon Thomas improves over last season, and if Marsh, along with Attaochu, can create pressure on the other side of the line, the pass rush for the 49ers should greatly improve in 2018.
If the defensive backs improve and do not allow the quarterback to find an open receiver it will allow the defensive line to get to the quarterback. But this also works both ways, if the defensive line can get pressure on the quarterback, then it will help take pressure off the defensive backs, force the quarterback into some bad throws.
So how well will they hold up against the NFC West offensive lines in 2018?
Of the 49ers opponents in the NFC West, the Cardinals had the worst offensive line in 2017. According to Pro Football Focus they were ranked 31st in the league, allowing 217 total pressures. They had seven different linemen give up at least two sacks last season. Six of the 49ers’ 30 sacks from last season came against their first meeting with the Cardinals; the Cardinals managed not to give up any sacks in their second go-around.
The Cardinals also managed only 51 rushing yards in their first meeting, but made up for it with 167 yards on the ground the second time they faced the 49ers. The Cardinals were also without David Johnson for pretty much the entire season, so the 49ers did not have to worry about him in the backfield.
If Solomon Thomas does indeed take a step forward and live up to the expectation of being the third overall-pick in a draft, then the Cardinals’offensive line should prove to be the swiss cheese it was in 2017, but they will have to figure out how to stop the run, especially if Johnson is in the backfield.
A huge weakness for the Seahawks for a few seasons now has been their offensive line. Pro Football Focus ranked the Seahawks line 27th last season, and since they waited until the fifth round of the 2018 draft to address the issue, it is safe to say it will still be the same porous as before. Russell Wilson has bailed out his offensive line so many times over his career, how many more times can he continue to do so, before his line gets him killed. The 49ers sacked Wilson four times over the two games they played last season and I expect them to do the same in 2018.
The 49ers gave up an average of 116 yards on the ground, and the Seahawks were a team that drove that average up with 131 yards rushing in Week 2 last year, but we are unsure at least at this point who their running back will be. One thing that is certain though, the defensive line needs to keep Russell Wilson contained in the pocket, and not let him get to the outside for a big run. Six times last season, Wilson ran for a first down and on one of those occasions, it was a touchdown.
Los Angeles Rams
Steve Trevor: This is no man's land, Diana! It means no man can cross it, alright? This battalion has been here for nearly a year and they've barely gained an inch. All right? Because on the other side there are a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place. This is not something you can cross. It's not possible.
--Chris Pine Wonder Woman, (2017)
The 49ers’ biggest challenge from the NFC West will be the Rams. Pro Football Focus ranked their offensive line sixth in the NFL, and all their stars are returning for 2018. They added a depth piece in the draft with their first pick in the draft, in the third round, offensive tackle Joe Noteboom out of TCU. In the first meeting between these two last year, the only time they played the Rams’ starters last season, the Rams did not surrender a single sack. However, it is worth noting that 36-year-old Andrew Whitworth did give up six sacks last season, the most he’s given up since he was a rookie in 2006. The Rams will be ready with their Great Wall of LA next season, if the 49ers are to penetrate it next season, they will have to be much better than they were in 2017.
Then there is Todd Gurley, who in that first meeting last year had 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground to go along with 36 yards and one touchdown through the air. The 49ers defensive line will have their hands full with him. This is not the same Todd Gurley who was held to 47 yards in Week 1 of the 2016 season.
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