Getting Home Improvement: Examining the Improvements to the Pass Rush and if They are Sustainable

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

On the 1980s television show “The A-Team,” Colonel “Hannibal” Smith’s catch phrase was “I love it when a plan comes together” and one did for the 49ers in their last game. When a plan comes together in primetime against the cross-bay rivals, that is even better. When it happens on a Thursday so there are three extra days to savor the feeling it doesn’t get much better. The 49ers’ 34-3 victory of over the Oakland Raiders featured all the elements the fans and the front office have been looking for, an effective running game, an efficient and piercing passing attack and an aggressive defense that recorded seven sacks. If it weren’t for Nick Mullens’ outstanding performance, in his first career start, the 49ers’ pass rush would be the talk of the Bay Area, but was the success of the pass rush a byproduct of the opponent or something that could be sustained in to the future?

In the first year of the Shanahan/Lynch regime the pass rush was an issue; Elvis Dumervil led the team with 6½ sacks but left the building at the end of 2017. Whether by design or just by virtue of the way the draft fell, the 49ers did not address the pass rush in the draft, and instead, chose to work on the fringes by signing Jeremiah Attaochu and adding Chris Kiffin to coach the pass rush. Attaochu did not make the team out of training camp and Kiffin’s coaching has produced mixed results at best. Against the Raiders, the 49ers were able to get to the quarterback with interior pass rush and off the edge. To whatever degree the defense has been able to generate a pass rush this season, it has come from DeForest Buckner, Ronald Blair, and Cassius Marsh; however, this last game saw a contribution from an unexpected source: Dekoda Watson, who returned from injured reserve and, in his season debut, played only 17 snaps but he made the most of them by recording 1½ sacks and three hits on the quarterback.

The 49ers are the sixth NFL team that Dekoda Watson has played for in his nine NFL seasons, in that time he has made his name as a special-teams standout. Saying Watson isn’t known for his pass rush skills is an understatement, (He came into the Raider game with four career sacks) but he has some physical traits in common with some pass rush specialists around the league, especially when it comes to speed off of the edge, posting similar or better times at the NFL combine than Khalil Mack, Von Miller and Bruce Irvin in the 40-yard dash, and the 20- and 60-yard shuttles. Watson rediscovered his speed against the Raiders, which, he attributes to weight loss spurred by a recent switch to a vegetarian diet. Whether Watson’s sudden transformation into a pass rusher or his love of vegetables is here to stay remains to be seen as tougher challenges lay ahead.

The New York Giants are next up on the schedule for the 49ers and are giving up more sacks per pass attempt than Oakland is. Despite coming into Monday night’s game with a 1-7 record, the Giants will present more of a challenge than the Raiders did with their banged up offensive line and lack of enthusiasm for the 2018 season. The Giants’ Eli Manning has been sacked more times (31) than any other quarterback in the NFL this year, but New York is coming off of their bye, which should have allowed them to tighten up their protections. As a litmus test for the 49ers pass rush this game is neutral at best, if the pass rush performs well the result will be excused as the result of going against an inferior opponent. If the pass rush underperforms, the result will be held as an example of its ineptness. The remaining schedule should be a good barometer for the 49ers pass rush with games against teams in the top third of the league in (most) sacks allowed (Giants, Seattle twice), the middle third (Tampa Bay and Denver) and (fewest) the bottom third (Rams, Bears).

Half of the season is in the books and to this point the pass rush has been about what most 49ers fans expected (or at least should have): good interior rush, spotty off the edge and as a result wildly inconsistent, especially on third downs and in the fourth quarter. Regardless of what happens in the final eight games, the pass rush should be the number one priority this off season. This year’s draft and free agency classes have the pass rush talent the 49ers need, and the 49ers will be active in both, but the 49ers also need to clarify the roles of those already on the team and clear out redundant pieces in order for this plan to come together.

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