Image Credit: USA TODAY Sports
Sometime in 2017, San Francisco 49ers fans began a grave, unrequited lust with the defensive end position.
Even with atrocious play from the quarterback and an offensive line full of holes, fans couldn’t stop talking about the edge or “LEO” position.
Fans begged for a capable edge defender, and the 49ers remained an oak; the team stayed the course with the men on the roster. And the more the coaching staff sang the praises of Solomon Thomas or Cassius Marsh as an edge defender, the more fan fervor grew.
It appears the Thomas and Marsh experiment is over, and this offseason, the 49ers signed veteran defensive end Dee Ford in March and drafted defensive end Nick Bosa in April. These two men, Bosa in particular, will bring critical changes to a four-man defensive front and allow defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to use more wide-9 defensive fronts.
Terminology and a Wide-9 Primer
As you probably know, the 49ers run a base 4-3 over and under front. An “over” front is when the defensive line aligns to the strong, or closed, side of the offensive formation; an “under” front is the opposite. The defensive line shifts to the weak, or open, side of the formation.
Indeed, the 49ers are not locked into these two fronts, and there are multiple variations and hybrid looks on nearly every play. Saleh may call a 3-man or a 5-man front, or a double A-gap look which makes offensive linemen sweat forces the quarterback to audible into 6-man protection.
Defensive line alignments are described by numbers and letters, each corresponding to a specific spot on the line of scrimmage. For example, a 0-technique is head-up on the center, a 3i-technique is the inside shoulder of the guard, and a 6-technique is the inside shoulder of the Y-receiver.
These numbers can vary slightly from team to team, but defensive linemen DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Solomon Thomas usually play the 0-5 spots; Ford and Bosa will typically take the 6-9 positions. As usual, none of these positions or schemes are set in stone.
A 9-technique is the strongside defensive end playing the outside shoulder of the Y-receiver. A wide-9 is the same defensive end playing two or three yards off the Y-receiver.
Finally, don’t get caught up in terms like LEO or Sam; these get thrown around by people without knowing what they mean.
LEO is the open or weakside defensive end, and he’ll usually be in a 6 or 7-technique, if not what looks exactly like a wide-9. Sam, in some schemes, is the strongside linebacker or defensive end.
Why Bosa Will Make an Impact at the Wide-9
A defensive coordinator calls a wide-9 to force the opposing tackle or tight end into a one-on-one situation against the defensive end, who is usually a far better athlete. There are very few blocking schemes that can bring help to the tackle or tight end unless the offense calls a 2/200 Jet and keeps the running back in to block.
Let’s draw up a clear passing situation where Saleh may align Bosa in a wide-9.
It’s third-and-13 early in the second quarter. The 49ers’ defense breaks the huddle and surveys the offense quickly moving into position. After a quick shift of the Z-receiver, offense and defense are set.
Bosa is on the weak side of the formation, about three yards off the left tackle. At the snap, Bosa’s first two steps are exploding forward, while the tackle has to move back and open his left hip at an angle.
The woeful tackle in our story is on his heels and playing reactionary football, with only his punch to ward off Bosa. On the other hand, Bosa has full hip and leg explosion and coming in low and fast.
Bosa bends sharply around the tackle, who is now standing up straight and looking for Bosa over his shoulder. Bosa’s arm hacks the quarterback’s shoulder, stripping the ball and bringing him to the ground.
Now, a good tackle will win some of these battles, and that’s expected. Even if Bosa isn’t getting sacks or tackles for loss, he’s still a disruptive force on the end of the line of scrimmage. He’ll keep the quarterback moving around the pocket and forcing errant throws.
Saleh will play Bosa in a 6- or 7-technique for running situations, but mistakes happen so Bosa might end up in a wide-9 at the wrong time.
If that’s the case, it’s Bosa’s job to set the edge. He cannot allow a lead blocker to push him too far outside or too far into the backfield. On an outside zone run, Bosa has the skill set to force the back to “bang” or “bend” inside where Bosa has help from his teammates.
What If Bosa Plays More SAM?
We as fans need to take a collective breath and not get caught up in terminology or technique. No terminology or method is permanently tattooed in the football heavens. Bosa will, from time to time, end up playing on the strong side of the defensive line, and Ford will end up on the weak side.
Last season, Ford played over 1,100 total snaps, with over 700 on the left side and just over 400 on the right.
The 49ers need success from Bosa and Ford, and Saleh will find a technique or alignment that suits both men well, rather than force them to play the position by the book.
It’s coming, Gentle Reader. A fully functioning defensive line is just a few weeks away.
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