Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Throughout a long NFL season, a team will find ways to cut the armor of an opponent to find painful pressure points.
Some teams, say one with a single victory, might refuse to fix its soft areas after eight or nine losses. That task might seem impossible, and waiting for free agency or the draft is the better option.
Nine-win teams, like the San Francisco 49ers, know the value of adjustments. Learning their vulnerabilities and finding solutions is welcomed rather than shunned.
The 49ers have already made a critical defensive adjustment.
The Solomon-Thomas-on-the-Edge experiment is over. Thomas has been limited in his snaps this season - playing 216 so far - with 138 coming as an interior defender. In the past two games, Thomas has played 49 snaps on the inside.
Adjustments in personnel or game plan, whether during the week or in the second quarter, are no problem for the 49ers.
It’s why this week is critical for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to make adjustments to stop mobile quarterbacks and shut down the no-huddle offense.
Dealing with a Running Quarterback
The upgrades the 49ers made at the defensive end position made it feel as if no NFL quarterback was going to escape their wrath. Both rookie Nick Bosa and veteran Dee Ford have had a considerable impact, generating a league-leading 39 sacks.
But something happened to the defense after the big Week 8 win over Carolina.
For reasons yet unknown, the defensive line and linebackers decided they'd never played against a running quarterback or had ever seen an offense run a zone-read.
Against Arizona in Week 9, 49er edge defenders decided to knife down the line of scrimmage and ignore trying to find the ball carrier. Their fundamental breakdown has carried over to the linebackers, who have been a bit lazy on their scrape-exchanges.
Week 9 – 3rd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the ARZ 37 (11:22)
Bosa’s athletic ability is more reliable than an ’80 Datsun 210. He knows it, and he can rely on it if he’s a bit outmatched or out of position. Bosa’s ability and aggression were too much for this play, and he got caught bolting down the line of scrimmage.
Later in the quarter, Murray gained 21-yards on a similar play. This time, Robert Blair was on the edge and again was caught moving too far down the line of scrimmage.
Murray might have been a somewhat unknown quantity coming into Week 9, but the 49ers looked grossly underprepared for seeing him again in Week 11.
In the two games against Arizona, quarterback Kyler Murray to gain 111 yards on the ground on 13 rushing attempts. That's 8.5 yards per attempt for those scoring at home.
Bosa had a similar problem against Seattle; however, quarterback Russell Wilson was able to complete an easy pass to wide receiver DK Metcalf.
Week 10 – 2nd Quarter: 2nd and 10 at the SF 16 (15:00)
Maybe I am reading the play entirely wrong, or perhaps this is the right way to play the edge. But Bosa and Blair knifing straight down the line of scrimmage, or simply getting caught too far inside, has become a vulnerable area of the defense.
Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman must be salivating as he sees the 49er ends take right angles down the line of scrimmage.
Saleh needs to ensure his edge defenders remain aggressive while containing their area. Whoever is on the edge needs to start to hold ground until he sees where the ball or a lead blocker is going.
The High Tempo Attack
A good offense always carries with it the element of surprise. Sometimes that's a route with a double move, while other times, it could be a flea-flicker.
The most successful and sometimes overlooked weapon is a high-tempo style of play. I'm not talking the Chip Kelly tempo; getting to the line of scrimmage and then asking all 11 offensive players to read a goofy sign on the sidelines was amusing, but it wasn’t high tempo.
When a quarterback decides it's time to move the ball downfield quickly and create mismatches, all while barking audibles at the line, that’s when the real fun begins. Even if a defense has its best eleven men on the field, the speed and chaos will lead a defender not hearing a call and being out of position.
Both Arizona and Seattle have found that a faster, no-huddle offense was a successful strategy to drive the field on the 49ers' defense.
In both games, the 49ers' defense looked unprepared for an up-tempo style of play, which was made slightly worse with Murray's rushes and Wilson's legs and lunch-recess-style of improvisation.
Even a casual NFL fan knows what Wilson is capable of doing when he's got the Seattle offense humming, and he's out of the pocket. It's become part of Wilson's brand, which is both impressive and infuriating.
If I'm the Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator, I'm dusting off the no-huddle plays and getting them sharp for Sunday night.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers not Murray or Wilson, but he is crafty, allowing him to operate a no-huddle offense with ease.
Despite the 565 rushing yards the 49ers allowed over the last four weeks, the scheme remains sound, particularly in the secondary. There's nothing new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh needs to develop and install, but he can look at small changes to counter the no-huddle offense and a running quarterback.
With the threat of a running quarterback off the table, Rodgers only has 109 yards on 27 attempts, Saleh can focus on why a no-huddle is a problem for his defense. Adding dropping the edge defender into coverage, hiding a blitzing linebacker, or a heavily disguised coverage can also throw off Rodgers’ reads and throws.
Further, he can use some help from the 49ers’ offense. Long drives that chew clock can keep the 49ers’ defenders fresh and ready to run with the Packers.
And while Saleh’s focused on Green Bay, his assistants need to examine how to top the dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
All images courtesy of NFL.com.
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