Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
[Pulls out a double-bladed knife.]
Thanos: Pretty, isn't it?
[Balances it on his index finger]
Thanos: Perfectly balanced, as all things should be. Too much to one side and the other...
Face it: You really liked the idea of Thanos bringing a perfect balance to the universe, even if Peter Parker had to turn into dust. The thought alone pumps the liquified energy of a feng shui infinity stone right into your endocrine system.
In 2019, the San Francisco 49ers finally found the perfect balance between a pass rush and pass coverage. There were moments throughout the season where defensive coordinator Robert Saleh sent four of his defensive linemen on a mundane blitz, dropped seven men into coverage, and ended up with a stop.
With nothing left to scream about, the latest rage among football fans and experts is determining what is greater: a pass rush or pass coverage.
The rules of this game are much like choosing between the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. A person can enjoy both Abbey Road and Let it Bleed, but at some point, the person must choose the more magnificent band.
It is time to examine the various concepts of a football defense and their basis in actual in-game fact.
It Starts Up Front
The 2018 49ers’ 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 some fail to consider: It’s not always about sacks; it’s about shattering a quarterback’s confidence into a million glass tears and pounding the fear of a 16-hour unhinged LSD journey into his brain.
In 2019, the 49ers faced the Green Bay Packers twice, and in both games, the 49ers’ pass rush turned quarterback Aaron Rodgers into stale jelly bread.
The results were a total of 10 sacks, three hits, and 24 hurries. Linebacker Fred Warner forced a fumble in Week 12, while defensive lineman Arik Armstead forced a fumble in the conference championship.
Here’s an example of what one poor edge rusher did for the 49ers in 2018 compared to what two highly capable men did in the same position in 2019.
2018 Season: Week 8 – 1st Quarter: 2nd and 7 at the ARZ 12 (1:22)
The 49ers took a loss to the Arizona Cardinals during Week 8 of the 2018 campaign. With just over a minute left in the first quarter, Arizona running back David Johnson took the handoff and went around the left edge.
Former 49er Cassius Marsh was covering the edge position and provided no effort to shed his block or hold steady his position until help arrived.
Marsh did neither, ended up out of position, and made zero impact on the play.
Johnson gained eight yards.
2019 Season: Week 1 – 1st Quarter: 3rd and 12 at the SF 48 (7:45)
This play alone is proof of what the upgraded defensive line can do with just a four-man rush.
Saleh put the 49ers’ defensive line in an under front. Bosa was aligned wide on the weak side, with Ford in a wide-9 technique on the strong or closed side.
The speed from both men coming off the edge was too much for Tampa Bay’s tissue-thin line. Bosa and Ford collapsed the pocket just as quarterback Jameis Winston hit the top of his drop.
Winston hitched up in a muddy pocket and threw an incomplete pass to Dare Ogunbowale.
The play above sums up the humid afternoon for Bosa and Ford. It’s amazing what happens when a defensive line can keep a quarterback on the move.
But You Need a Capable Secondary
Week 6 of the 2018 season was a rough game for the 49ers’ secondary. The same Aaron Rodgers who turned into gulag mush in 2019 threw for 425 yards and two touchdowns in 2018.
While the 49ers’ defense sacked Rodgers twice in 2018, the 49ers’ secondary gave Rodgers a few gifts throughout the evening.
2018 Season: Week 6 – 1st Quarter: 1st and 10 at the SF 34 (9:08)
I am unaware of any pass coverage that places four defensive players within seven yards of one another to cover two receivers. The coverage breakdown left the flat wide open and allowed Rodgers to make an easy throw in the right flat for a 22-yard gain.
2018 Season: Week 7– 2nd Quarter, 1st and 10 at the LA 47, 12:52
The 2018 49ers couldn’t learn from its continued coverage breakdowns.
On the Los Angeles Rams’ fifth possession, head coach Sean McVay used a Yankee concept, which gained 32 yards. Quarterback Jared Goff found wide receiver Robert Woods wide open on the left side of the secondary because the 49ers’ defensive back did not drop into the deep third of the field.
Rest assured, three 49ers were covering the underneath crossing route. As they did against Green Bay, the 49ers’ secondary was outstanding at using three defensive players to cover one receiver.
It wasn’t the first time the 49ers’ secondary was torched by the Yankee concept. The Cardinals, Chiefs, and Chargers ran it against the 49ers in 2018 for huge gains and scores.
Cornerback Richard Sherman confirmed the 49ers’ secondary was at fault for the coverage breakdowns and mental lapses in 2018 during a January 24, 2020 press conference.
“He’s (Saleh) calling a lot of the same plays. He’s scheming it up just as he always has. I guess he has more talent, and I guess people are executing the calls that he calls. That was one of the things where I would get frustrated with his criticisms because people were like, ‘oh, my God, he’s calling a terrible game.’ I was like, ‘well, he’s calling a great game and poor execution more than anything.’ You call a blitz, and they don’t blitz. You call a cover two, they play cover three.”
There is no amount of pass rush that can compensate for coverage breakdowns, nor are there five defensive backs that have the energy to chase down receivers all afternoon while the pass rush takes its sweet time getting to the quarterback.
Forget the greater-than-less-than Twitter debate. Instead, take a lesson from the Mad Titan and focus on what a team can accomplish with the critical balance between a ferocious pass rush and a smart, nasty secondary.
All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
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