Image Credit: Associated Press
Imagine you’re a brilliant scientist on the brink of perfecting cold fusion. You’ve run the steps through a computer model countless times, but continue to find gaps in the chain reaction.
These quantum links – neutrons, electrons, and molecules – cannot be substituted for another substance or element. Without them, you remain near the brink of a life-altering discovery.
The same is true when building a professional football team. I’ve said it time and again: One of my most significant sources of frustration with the San Francisco 49ers is the team's unquenchable lust to build a winning roster on the cheap.
No matter if Blaine Gabbert was behind center or Garry Gilliam at tackle – cheap talent double-digit losses.
That strategy finally died a needed death a few weeks ago when general manager John Lynch announced the 49ers had signed linebacker Kwon Alexander and defensive end Dee Ford.
Let’s assume, Dear Friend, that Jupiter aligns with Mars next week and the 49ers draft Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa. With two fully capable edge defenders, what the new possibilities for the 49ers’ defense?
Secondary – Interceptions
Football success or defeat is found in the 11-inch neutral zone separating the offensive and defensive line. I would be hard pressed to believe a team could reach and win a Super Bowl without a line that ranks in the top 10 percent of the league. The 49ers have the talent in the interior of the defensive line, enough to bring a constant rush, but had little consistency on the edges.
Without a consistent pressure on the quarterback, the remainder of the defense falls or has to work twice as hard to produce - specifically the secondary. As we know, the 49ers’ secondary could only muster two interceptions last season.
There are a multitude of reasons why the secondary struggled, but chief among them was the lack of a pass rush.
Like a chain reaction, a weak defensive line produces no pressure on the opposing quarterback. With no pressure, the square-jawed gunslinger can survey the coverage and find the open man on any pass play he wishes.
During the Week 7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams last year, the 49ers generated 8 total pressures on 27 dropbacks by Rams quarterback Jared Goff. With no pressure, Goff is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, tossing 28 touchdowns, connecting on 71.7% of his passes, and averaging 9 yards per attempt.
When pressured, Goff resembles a Pop Warner quarterback learning to throw a three-yard hitch route. His completion percentage drops to 42.2%, and he averages 5.8 yards per attempt.
Now, the 49ers’ secondary looked as lost as a grade schooler at the state fair in Week 7. But that’s no excuse for a total lack of effort from the front four.
With steady pressure coming from the edges, it will force a quarterback to step-up too early in his climb and force more bad throws. More bad throws or indecision leads to more interceptions for the secondary.
Interior Defensive Line – Nowhere to Run and Everyone to Block
I reject blind faith under nearly every circumstance under the cosmos. But, for reasons unknown, I continue to put a lot of preseason faith in the 49ers’ interior players.
And, like a sucker, I’ve been roundly disappointed in the interior’s overall performance.
Indeed, both DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead played very well last season, but two men are not enough to anchor an entire defense.
In 2017, the 49ers’ rush defense ranked 22nd in the NFL, allowing 1,861 rush yards on a league-high 491 attempts. Unfortunately, the pass rush finished near the bottom of the league with 30 sacks.
Last season, despite some improvements, the rush defense ranked 14th overall, giving up over 1,800 yards on 444 attempts. The pass rush tallied 37 sacks, which placed the 49ers 23rd overall.
There’s both blame and success to share for these improvements, including the coaching staff who has an addiction to dropping defensive linemen into coverage.
However, without a push from the edges, the interior defenders have to work harder to get to the quarterback.
Part of an edge defender’s job isn’t notching 15 tackles per game. Sometimes, he needs to hold firm on the edge to force the running back to cut back inside earlier than he wanted. On other plays, the edge defender needs to merely make a push to pressure the quarterback to step up too early in his climb. Both result in the interior defenders making a play – whether a stop-for-loss, sack or even stripping the ball.
Further, I challenge any defensive coordinator to find a way to block Ford, Armstead, Buckner, and Bosa.
I have patience; I’ll sit back and wait for the scheme.
Linebackers – Using These Men Effectively
I have vague memories of many reporters and fans discussing how defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was bringing a hybrid of the Seattle Seahawks’ defense to the Bay. That sounded exciting until the 49ers tried to execute the scheme.
Seattle found success in the defensive scheme because they were balanced; the defense had capable players at every position, allowing the linebackers to drop into coverage and disrupt the throwing lanes.
Again, the 49ers have had coverage issues that extend far beyond a lack of a real edge defender. But if the edge defenders can bring more pressure, the linebackers can now safely drop into coverage without trying to cover up the lack of talent at the edge.
Further, on run plays, if Ford and Bosa are squeezing the back’s outside lines, and the interior linemen are working to collapse the interior lanes, then the linebackers are solely there as a backstop, rather than a catch-all tackler.
Football isn’t like science and therefore is not an “if-then” sport. If the 49ers traded for one player, it does not mean the 49ers will see instant success. It takes 10 other men, a coaching staff, and starvation only cured by drinking the 7 pounds of sterling silver at the end of the season.
But two edge defenders, like the two needed elements to complete the cold fusion experiment, are certainly a giant leap in the direction of greatness.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
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