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For the past two seasons, the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive line had the potential to be one of the dominate fronts in professional football. Time and again, I pledged my loyalty to that potential, hoping the reward for my faith would be paid in gold rather than coal.
In 2015, 49er management set down a path to build a formidable defensive line. Now, the strategy could be a sliver of shared philosophy between Trent Baalke and John Lynch, or it could merely be the way the stars aligned for the franchise.
Regardless, four years of high-round picks and free agent investments has resulted in a frightening display of talent. Over the last two seasons, the 49er trench men generated decent numbers, especially against the run.
In 2017, the 49ers’ defensive line faced a league-high 491 rush attempts, allowing 1,861 yards and 13 rush touchdowns. Last year, the 49ers front four allowed 47 fewer rush yards, 13 rush touchdowns and allowed three fewer rush yards per game than in 2018.
In fact, the 49ers’ run defense allowed 143 fewer rush yards and allowed a full yard less per rush than the Los Angeles Rams defensive line – and the Rams saw 58 fewer attempts.
Keep in mind the 49ers’ defense has had one solid, reliable linebacker in the last two seasons – Fred Warner – and edge players that would have been relegated to the second team or practice squad on nearly any other NFL team.
The final roster for the defensive line is one of the more predictable position groups to project. The bigger question is how defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will use his rebuilt, upgraded and strong defense.
Edge: Nick Bosa
3i: DeForest Buckner
1-3: Arik Armstead
Edge: Dee Ford
Edges: Ronald Blair, Jullian Taylor, Kentavius Street
1-3i: Solomon Thomas
0-3: D.J. Jones
I want to be as objective as possible when bringing commentary to the masses, but the starting defensive line is nearly unbeatable. These four first-round picks, along with a robust second squad, are the pieces Saleh’s been missing in his goal to have an aggressive defense.
Goals for the Starters
A defensive line can be an anchor for the defense, but only if the supporting cast can share some of the burdens. There is no way DeForest Buckner can be the only champion in the trench; fortunately, Arik Armstead played his best football last season and showed he can play beyond his ability.
Armstead increased his production across the board, improving his Pro Football Focus run defense grade by 12 points, doubling his quarterback hurries and run stops. Any comment that Armstead isn’t a threat or a leader for the 49ers is someone seeking cheap clicks for reads or retweets; the man can play in Saleh’s system and be successful.
Two capable edge defenders will force the opposition into no-win situations with the protection. Ford and Bosa have the speed and agility to leave any tackle on his heels, and I can’t imagine any running back who willingly wants to stay in and block either man all game.
Providing help for a tackle leaves the offense with one less receiver in a route or opens gaps on the offensive line. If the offense calls a “Tug” protection, the tackle and guard exchange assignments; the tackle blocks down and the guard steps around for the linebacker or defensive lineman.
Another option is a “Tag” block, where the tackle and guard once again trade jobs. The tackle blocks down and the guard pulls around to hook the defensive end over the tackle.
Either situation poses a real problem for the guard and clears space for interior stunts like quick or delated Me Games. I hate predicting statistics, but I have a hard time thinking the 49ers will have fewer than 45 quarterback sacks this season.
Camp Battle: Second Team Edge Positions
Expect to see intense competition for the second team edge defenders, with Ronald Blair, Kentavius Street, and Jullian Taylor in heavy rotation during preseason games.
Blair came on strong last season, playing 534 snaps over 16 games. He doubled his career sacks, tackles, run stops, and hurries last year. Further, he only missed one tackle, which was a bright light of consistency in a waxen sea of arm tackles and whiffs.
I’m looking forward to seeing Street in action. As you remember, he didn’t play a down last season due to a torn ACL suffered during his pro day. Taylor had an excellent 2018 preseason, but he only played in six regular season games last year and racked up 7 combined tackles. He played in Weeks 11-16 when the team needed depth in the trench.
Blair is the obvious choice to be the second team edge defender, but it’ll be exciting to watch these three men push each other and improve.
Like you, I’m not privy to Saleh’s overall scheme and playbook. For the last two years, he’s sounded as if he wants to have an aggressive, fast defense, but the results have been the opposite.
Saleh’s defensive fronts were tepid at best, calling three-man rushes or calling a poorly designed play with the nose tackle dropping into the hook-to-curl zone.
In Week 9, we saw a shift to more aggressive exchanges and stunts; it was proof that when Saleh brings pressure, his defense works – see the 49er victory over the Raiders as the prime example.
Finally, the defensive line’s success centers around Saleh’s white-whale mission to force Solomon Thomas to play the edge position. It’s time Saleh stops cramming square pegs into round holes; if a player isn’t an edge defender, stop trying to convince yourself and the fanbase that he is. Play the man where his strengths lie and scheme around it.
We’ve suffered the nonsensical mock drafts and schedule predictions for long enough; OTAs start this week, which means real football is just a little over two months away.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
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