Noted Improvements for the Defensive Line and Two Looming Issues
For the past year, I’ve been a champion of the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive line. The unit has the capacity for greatness with a mix of All-Pro talent and reliable veterans.
Most of these warriors are playing in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s system for the second year, so it’s been fun to watch them operate faster and with more confidence. The two-gap system used in 2016 did not fit the skill set of men like defensive lineman DeForest Buckner or Arik Armstead. Saleh’s one-gap front lets the defensive line play without thinking, resulting in accelerated, aggressive play.
Through the first two weeks of the 2018 season, the 49ers’ defensive statistics rank in the middle of the pack. I should note the run defense has not given up a rushing touchdown, but the remaining numbers do not stand up and whistle Dixie.
Last Sunday, the Detroit Lions exploited the 49ers’ soft underbelly: the secondary. Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw the ball 53 times and completed 34 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. The Lions did run the ball 18 times for 98 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
DeForest Buckner is the most exciting trench man to watch in all of professional football. Buckner looks like a man among boys on nearly every play and is a half-sack behind league leader Von Miller.
The Lions pulled the shortest straw for rookie guard Frank Ragnow, who had to face Buckner all afternoon. Ragnow, my offseason draft crush, had his dignity put to shame allowing one sack, two hits, four hurries and seven pressures. Buckner’s midday witch hunt helped Ragnow earn a 17.7 pass block grade from Pro Football Focus.
Whether Buckner knew of the apparent mismatch or if it was just fate smiling down on the 49ers is not known. But it was fantastic to see the 49ers fleece the glaring weakness in the Lions’ offensive line.
Four-year veteran Arik Armstead is playing inspired football. According to Pro Football Focus, Armstead leads the 49ers in quarterback hits with three and hurries with six. He made Stafford earn some of his 347 yards, forcing Stafford to hurry five times.
Solomon Thomas is improving, though still not at the speed that most everyone wants to see. Indeed, he played only 36 snaps on Sunday and tallied four hurries. But his efforts were masked by two missed tackles.
I understand the strong desire for Thomas to finally come around and play dominating football as he did in college. But some players take a little longer than 18 games to mature. I would like to see what he can do from a 3-technique, as I believe he’d be a better interior defender.
It’s important to admit when I’m wrong about a player, and I’m wrong about third-year defensive lineman Ronald Blair. I misjudged his talent, and Blair is slowly making me eat my words. Through two weeks he’s had two key sacks, and playing stronger football than Thomas. I would not be surprised to see him on the edge more this week against Kansas City.
Two Looming Issues – Tackling and Secondary Play
Our high school nose tackle went on-the-record with the Modesto Bee after a game, stating how happy he was to hit the field and “look fat” so our Mike linebacker could demolish anyone in his general orbit.
Our nose tackle was right; it is not the defensive line's job to make every play or every tackle. It’s the defensive line's job to cause havoc and make life difficult for the offense, allowing the linebackers to clean up the mess and the secondary to intercept rushed throws.
Right now, the broken 49ers’ linebacker corps is not helping the front four. Rookie Mike linebacker Fred Warner is playing incredible football. In two weeks, he has 19 tackles, ranking him fourth overall in the NFL.
49er linebackers have missed nine tackles in two games thus far, nullifying the clogged running lanes or check-down pass from the opposing quarterback. Hopefully, with the return of second-year linebacker Reuben Foster, the 49ers can nip the missed tackles in the bud.
Finally, the defensive line needs to earn coverage sacks courtesy of the 49ers’ secondary. It’s clear the secondary needs to go back to the drawing board and relearn even the most elementary coverage. Improved play from the defensive backs and safeties means the front-four are not running up and down the field for 30 or more minutes. Fresh lineman late in the game means they’ll be able to come up with a big sack or stop when needed.
Sunday’s win was tough and exposed some significant flaws in the 49ers. However, the defensive line continues to be the unit that holds the defense together.
Game stats courtesy of NFL.com.
Season stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
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