Perfectly Balanced: How Much Will an Outside Pass Rush Help the Interior DL
Image Credit: USA TODAY Sports
As all things should be
Colonel: You write "Born to Kill" on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What's that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?
Private Joker: No, sir.... I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.
Colonel: The what?
Private Joker: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.
Kubrick, Stanley. Full Metal Jacket.
Human beings crave balance. Examine one of the thousands of dogmas from the past 5,000 years, and you’ll quickly uncover the evidence: A good deity and an evil deity; Yin and Yang; Jesus and Satan; Superman and Batman.
Sport is no different. Anyone who’s competed – from Little League to a professional franchise – knows the key to success is finding a balance. A coach or manager needs to balance his talent, rotating line-ups or pitchers in the right way to achieve maximum success.
The San Francisco 49ers have lacked balance since Super Bowl XLVII. No matter if the coach was new, a quarterback came off the bench, or a draft pick went south - something always felt off with the team.
While the executive office found its North Star, the roster continued to feel off-kilter. For example, head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh continued to play defensive lineman Solomon Thomas as an outside defender, despite clear evidence that he plays better as an interior defensive lineman.
Last season, the 49ers began camp without a dominant edge defender. Call him LEO or a REO, a Willie or a Sam, the 49ers did not have someone who struck real fear in the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.
I tried to remain positive about the apparent gap in talent, assuming the team knew what it was doing.
“Maybe Solomon Thomas will improve at the 9-technique this year! And maybe Cassius Marsh has a higher motor than we think… These guys will let the interior defensive line feast on the opposition!”
I’ve always been skeptical about the 49ers’ ability to piece together a solid interior offensive line, you’d think that doubt would bleed over onto the defensive side of the football.
Alas, I was once again the victim of the ongoing April Fool’s prank led by general manager John Lynch: We’ll tell you this player has the ability, continue to tout his greatness during the season, and then quietly release him before the start of free agency.
It’s a brutish fact to share, but Cassius Marsh, Solomon Thomas, and Ronald Blair lacked the combined talent to make a real impact as edge defenders. Indeed, each man had his moments over a 16-game season, but not enough to ease some of the pressure from the interior front.
Marsh had a hard time playing consistent football and holding down the end of the line of scrimmage; Thomas, as stated before, is not built to play a 9-technique. I have thin threads of hope that Saleh will end the Thomas experiment and keep him between a 0- and 3-technique this fall.
Blair had a breakout season in 2018, notching 8 sacks, 15 hurries, 21 tackles, and 20 run stops. But winning defenses need more than one sack every other game and less than one hurry per game.
For the purpose of this commentary, I need to break my own rules. First, let’s assume the 49ers draft Nick Bosa. Second, terms like LEO and REO are interchangeable. We as fans need to stop tossing around football terminology we don’t know how to use. Finally, let’s assume the starting defensive front looks like this:
Edge: Dee Ford
Interior: DeForest Buckner
Interior: Arik Armstead
Edge: Nick Bosa
On paper, that front four looks nearly impossible to block.
If a tackle and tight end try to double Ford, that leaves Buckner one-on-one with a guard. A bull-rush or an elementary arm-over gets Buckner past the guard with nothing but oxygen molecules between himself and the quarterback.
Do not believe anyone who states that Arik Armstead did not play well last year. The man doubled his snap count and run stops, and he tripled his tackles from last season. Armstead and Thomas, both playing inside, can cause enough ruckus to also draw double team blocks or open rush lanes for linebackers Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander.
Saleh finally started to call a more aggressive defense last season during a Week 8 loss to Arizona. We were treated to more blitzing linebackers and the infamous tackle-end exchange (TEX) stunt.
As you can see from the diagram below, a TEX stunt sends defensive tackle to the outside, while the defensive end loops around to the A or B-gap. The 49ers ran it correctly, and Marsh’s rush forced Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning to hurry a throw.
Week 10: 49ers vs. New York Giants – 1st Quarter, 3rd and 5 at the NYG 49 (5:39)
If the 49ers could run a TEX and catch the offensive line off guard, the stunt worked well. The problem arrived when the offensive line knew it was coming and Marsh could not shed the block. Manning was able to find room in the pocket, and find Odell Beckham, Jr. for six points.
1st Quarter – 3rd and 8 at the SF 10 (2:48)
With the right front this season, Saleh can use his TEX stunt, but can also call a more aggressive defense starting Week 1. With two high-powered defensive ends, a stout interior and two hungry linebackers, there is no reason for Saleh to keep his foot hovering above the brake. He has to send five and six men on a stunt, keeping the quarterback on the move and forcing errant throws into his secondary.
Last year’s dismal pass rush tallied a whole 275 quarterback pressures of any kind, resulting in a whopping two interceptions. Compare the same statistics with the Chicago Bears defense that had 342 total pressures of any kind and led the NFL with 27 interceptions.
That’s a pivotal point to take into this fall: It’s not always about sacks; it’s about shattering a quarterback’s confidence into a million glass tears. I want him to see the ghost of DeForest Buckner on every play, even if Buckner decides to sip a cup of lemonade on the sideline.
The Beatles wrote its greatest music during a spring medication trip to India in 1968. Indeed, the band endlessly argued until its demise, but the Fab Four found balance. The 49ers now need to see their own Maharishi to show the team how to find its center.
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