The Wide 9: Everything You Need to Know About the New 49ers Defensive Philosophy
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As soon as Kyle Shanahan hired Kris Kocurek as the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive line coach, the immediate buzz term became the “Wide-9 technique” and how that would affect the rest of the 49ers’ defense. There has been a lot of clamor about the free agents the 49ers signed so far this offseason and what they will do with the second overall pick in this April’s draft. If you know how the Wide-9 technique works, it makes total sense what the 49ers have done in free agency and it might give us an idea of what they will do in the draft, with the number two pick and defensive prospects that could be on their radar at least.
If you don’t understand or know how the Wide-9 technique works or even what that terminology means, it’s pretty simple. All of you are probably aware of what an offensive line looks like: T-G-C-G-T (Tackle-Guard-Center-Guard-Tackle), often times with a tight end on the outside of either the right or left tackle. Whichever side the tight end is lined up on, the opposite side is considered the strong side defensively. So why are we talking about the offensive line when we were supposed to be talking about a defense lining up in a Wide-9 technique? Because the defense lines up off of how the offensive line is positioned, and those spots where defensive lineman line up are labeled by numbers.
Here is one more piece of offensive terminology that is important to understand why the 49ers are making the defensive moves that they are in free agency and what they may do in the draft. The gaps between the offensive linemen are labeled by letters. So the space between the center and each guard is labeled the “A-gap,” between the guards and tackles the “B-gap,” and outside the tackle (or between the tackle and tight end) the “C-gap.” Outside the TE would be the “D-gap.”
Now, back to lining up the defense off of the offensive lineman. A true nose tackle who lines up directly over the center is considered to be using the “0-technique,” Moving to the outside of the line in both directions, lining up directly over an offensive lineman is denoted by using an even number. This means lining up directly over the guard would be a “2-technique,” lining up directly over the tackles is a “4-technique,” and lining up directly over a tight end is a “6-technique.” If a defensive player lines up on the outside shoulder of an offensive lineman, he is denoted by an odd number. So a nose tackle lined up on either outside shoulder of a center is utilizing the 1 technique and so forth in both directions. If a defensive player lines up on the inside shoulder of an offensive lineman, then their position is denoted with the letter i. A defensive tackle lined up on the inside shoulder of a guard would be using the “2i-technique.”
So what in the heck is a Wide-9 technique since we’ve run out of lineman? Imagine a 2-tight end set where the offense has two tight ends stacked to the same side of the offensive line, so that their line looked like this: T-G-C-G-T-TE-TE. If a defensive end or outside linebacker lined up directly over that second tight end, then he would be playing the 8-technique, which makes a player playing the Wide-9 technique slightly outside that outside shoulder of the second TE, and this is done on both sides of the offensive line. The picture below shows the defensive markers without the corresponding offensive terminology. Notice how far outside the RT the DE on the strong side is.
This is very different than what 49er fans have been used to. The last time the defense was truly dominant, they were playing a 3-4 defensive scheme with a linebacker core of Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, and Aldon Smith, plus they had Justin Smith playing the 5-technique defensive end. This is when many fans learned of the LEO, Will, Sam, and Jack linebacker terminology and Aldon Smith’s dominance at LEO made everyone clamor over it. This Wide-9 technique is very different from those days. Aldon Smith was able to feast on quarterbacks because Justin Smith could seal the tackle and give Aldon Smith a free run at the quarterback over and over. If the league kept track of sack assists, Justin Smith would have led it year-in and year-out.
The idea behind the success of the Wide-9 and what the Smiths were doing six years ago is the same: give your edge pass rushers a clear path to the quarterback. Instead of using a DE to seal the edge though, in the Wide-9 the player just lines up way outside of the edge of the offensive line, where they can pick up speed before the tackle has any opportunity to make contact with them, oftentimes blowing right past a slow tackle. Think about the acquisition of Dee Ford and then lining him up on every down where he can have a two-step head start on the quarterback before he is ever touched. It makes total sense. The reason everyone is saying the 49ers need another pass rusher is because the Wide-9 is executed on both sides of the line, so in essence, the big end who plays on the weak side of the defense plays a lot more like a LEO on that side of the ball; in reality you are lining up two fast edge rushing defensive ends and the two defensive tackles lined up in the 3-technique and/or the 2i-technique. Ideally, you are looking for two edge rushers with speed and the ability to dip under and bend around a tackle. The 49ers have already picked one up in Ford, now they need a second one to compliment him.
This is obviously a pass rushing defensive alignment, and many people have said the run defense in this setup is to tackle the running back on your way to the quarterback. When you couple this with Shanahan’s and Robert Saleh’s comments last year that a pass rush up the middle of the offensive line is just as important as rushing off of the edge, you can see their plan to eliminate the lack of sacks the team has had the last two years. With Ford and whomever the other DE is crashing in with speed off the edge, it will force the quarterback to either take shorter drop-backs or step up into the pocket. This should allow the likes of DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Arik Armstead to feast on quarterbacks much the way the Smith brothers did.
This quick pressure off of the edge and the 49ers’ tall and long defensive tackles rushing up the middle means the opposing quarterbacks shouldn’t have a lot of time to look through their progressions and wide receivers shouldn’t have time to complete routes. This makes sense with what the 49ers brass decided to do at free safety. Everyone wanted a big signing and they were upset when the 49ers brought Jimmie Ward back to Santa Clara. It was reported that they did reach out to a couple other free safeties, but didn’t want to break the bank on the position. The expected pressure they are going to get with the Wide-9 technique may be the reason why they didn’t make that a higher priority in free agency. It would also make sense why they valued a free-agent cornerback, because if the quarterback has less time, the team will need strong cornerbacks who can face wide receivers one-on-one in small areas with ease. If the 49ers can get good press coverage on the receivers at the snap, and decrease the amount of time the quarterback has with a four-man rush, the teams should be a top defense in the league in 2019.
If the Wide-9 technique is so amazing, then why doesn’t everyone run it? Even though it does produce high sack numbers (think Cameron Wake in his prime in Miami), it can be a real liability in the run defense game. Pushing your defensive end that far outside makes the C-gap more difficult to defend in the run game. This is why if a team is going to run the Wide-9 technique, they will need to have good, fast linebackers. Enter the Kwon Alexander signing.
Alexander is incredibly athletic and has the speed to stay in coverage with the tight end, or step up and fill all that space left open by the Wide-9. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 49ers trot out Alexander, Fred Warner Jr., and Elijah Lee as their starting linebackers due to the need for speed, using Malcolm Smith only in a reserve or coverage role.
So what does this all mean for the draft? That the 49ers are definitely going to pick a DE-edge rusher at the top of the draft to line up opposite Ford. The three players who fit the mold the best are Nick Bosa, Brian Burns, and Montez Sweat. All are speed burners with a good dip off the edge and more suited to play a straight speed pass rush. It is becoming more likely that Bosa will be available at the second pick, but Burns and Sweat would be available if they traded down to collect New York’s two first round picks, where they could then pick up someone like Kansas State’s Dalton Risner to beef up their offensive line as well. Not going with a DE-edge rusher at the top of the draft could signal a trade back into the draft for Clelin Ferrell or another edge rusher just off the top tier of the prospects. If the 49ers draft Josh Allen, it won’t be to play DE, it would be to start at the Sam spot next to Warner and Alexander. It also means that they will probably draft another true DE prospect later on, and start Thomas, Kentavius Street, or Dekoda Watson on that opposite DE spot. This is the reason I am not a fan of them drafting Allen.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if they drafted another linebacker earlier than many are thinking as well, depending on how comfortable they are with Lee or Smith starting at the Sam position. One thing is for sure though; the front office and Shanahan are definitely building a roster around players’ abilities to perform the tasks needed in their schemes. They aren’t just throwing dollars at big name players; they are looking for the right fill for their positions of need.
With the Wide-9 being utilized in 2019, everyone should expect Buckner, Thomas, and Armstead to have career sack numbers, with Ford and his soon to be added counterpart forcing the quarterback to them. Forcing the opponents’ offenses to speed up their decision-making should also account for the team causing a lot more turnovers this coming year. It sounds like it’s going to be a fun defense to watch next season.
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