The 49ers and Packers will be opponents in Week 6 of the 2018 season, but San Francisco may be well served by looking to Green Bay to solve a defensive issue in the first two games of the campaign.
Reuben Foster will be suspended for Weeks 1 and 2 and, while his light punishment was a win for the Niners following a tumultuous offseason for the linebacker, it does leave the defense looking more vulnerable for games with the high-powered offenses of the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions.
When on the field in 2017, Foster was one of the best linebackers in the league, ranked fourth in the NFL at the position by Pro Football Focus.
Foster excels as a run defender because of his speed, physicality and ability to both take on and evade blockers, while his sideline-to-sideline range was also on display in his rookie year.
Those same athletic gifts enabled him to impress in coverage, where he proved capable of holding his own even against wide receivers.
And, if the Niners do not feel confident in starting Fred Warner, a coverage specialist in his collegiate career at BYU, then San Francisco risks putting two linebackers out on the field who are comparatively week in coverage in Malcolm Smith and Brock Coyle.
Prior to a 2017 season lost to injury, Smith gave up six touchdowns in coverage for the Oakland Raiders in 2016, per PFF. Meanwhile Coyle received a PFF grade of 43.2 for coverage in 2017 (h/t Niners Nation), giving up 323 yards on 40 targets with two touchdowns and no passes defensed.
Were Warner to be kept on the sideline, Smith and Coyle would be the favorites to start at MIKE and WILL linebacker, positions an opposing quarterback will often read during run-pass option plays that are on the rise in the NFL, making being deficient in coverage at those spots increasingly problematic.
However, a possible solution was provided by the Packers last season as Green Bay relied heavily on what was labelled their 'Nitro' package.
Nitro is, in essence, a nickel package where the strong safety drops down to play middle linebacker, and it allowed the Packers to get at least three safeties on the field, minimizing the impact of their lack of depth at linebacker and subsequently improving their hopes of defending the pass while, in theory, not losing much in terms of run defense.
The results were mediocre, the Packers ranked eighth in Football Outsiders run defense DVOA but 27th against the pass. Yet on tape there were signs of Nitro being a formation worth exploring for the 49ers given their number of options at safety.
Below we see a few Nitro alignments from the Packers' Week 3 game with the Cincinnati Bengals. The first sees the Packers use a single-high safety with both Morgan Burnett and Josh Jones effectively serving as extra linebackers.
On the second, the Packers have a pair of safeties deep with Jones in the box and Burnett playing the slot, while the third has a single-high safety lined up just to the left of the far-hash with Jones in the box and Haha Clinton-Dix showing blitz.
The coverage advantages of the package became clear in the opening weeks of the season, with Burnett showing the ability to make plays when defending both Jimmy Graham and Julio Jones, contesting at the catch point and deflecting both passes on close to identical routes as they attempted to break back towards the football.
Josh Jones was able to make similarly eye-catching plays, with his performances likely contributing to Burnett's departure in free agency, and one of his best came in an excellent display against the Bengals. On a third down play in overtime, Jones tracks Tyler Kroft motioning in the backfield and allows him very little separation on his route to the flat before making a perfect tackle and preventing him from picking up the first down.
But the benefits the Nitro can have extend beyond just pass coverage. In the Week 3 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons, having both Clinton-Dix and Burnett on the field, as well as a single-high, enabled them to shut down this attempted screen pass to Taylor Gabriel with ease as they each diagnosed it quickly and showed off their athleticism to swarm to the ball.
When Jones played down in the box in the Nitro against the Bengals the pass rush excelled as he recorded a pair of sacks, one coming as a result of Cincinnati being unable to account for the extra rusher and the other thanks to his quickness to be able to work inside of Kroft.
Yet perhaps the biggest advert for the Packers sticking with Nitro was the coverage breakdowns suffered when they did not do so. On this play from the Falcons game, the Packers go with just two safeties, a single-high and Burnett, who hesitates on whether to rush the passer, down in the box.
The Packers play a zone and Mohamed Sanu is able to exploit a huge soft spot in it as linebacker Jake Ryan is caught out of position and with no chance of making the play on the ball. Free safety Clinton-Dix has too much ground to make up, ensuring an easy pitch and catch for Matt Ryan and Sanu.
Green Bay's disappointing pass defense metrics suggest Nitro was not the solution to their issues but, for a two-game span it could well aid the cause of a team that has as many options at safety as the Niners.
Jaquiski Tartt already plays the box safety role in the 49ers' Cover 3 defense, so dropping him even closer to the line of scrimmage would not seem to be that much of a change, though he has previously been resistant to talk of him playing linebacker.
Kyle Shanahan has already spoken about potentially moving Jimmie Ward inside from the cornerback position at which he has practiced in training camp, and both he and Tartt have the pass defense skills and physicality to succeed in a cover linebacker role.
Hard-hitting former undrafted free agent Chanceller James and rookie Marcell Harris both have skill sets suited to filling such a role or serving as the extra safety were Tartt to become the linebacker, but their lack of any NFL experience makes such a scenario unlikely in two tough intra-conference matchups.
Rookie D.J. Reed's transition from corner to free safety could enable starter Adrian Colbert to play some snaps in the box and free up Tartt in a Nitro look, while Tarvarius Moore -- 6'1" and 199 pounds with 4.3 speed -- boasts the size and athleticism to potentially make the less familiar move from cornerback to linebacker.
Such experiments appear unlikely at this stage and the Niners are sure to have a ton of faith in Smith having elected to pay him $26.5million over five years in the 2017 free agency period.
However, training camp -- in addition to helping teams decide the 53-man roster and the depth chart -- is a time for experimentation.
San Francisco's linebacker depth with Foster on the shelf can be considered unconvincing at best and the Niners would be wise to at least investigate whether the Nitro can be incorporated into their defensive gameplan to mask their deficiencies at the position and help them come through stern examinations from two of the better offenses in the NFC.
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