Image Credit: USA TODAY Sports
Ronald Blair and the 49ers’ Defensive Line
“That? Oh, that’s a quarantine flag. Warning that there’s Black Death aboard.”
- “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960)
In the middle of global pandemic and isolation, it gives us plenty of time to ponder what could have been if the San Francisco 49ers were able to avoid a handful of critical injuries during the 2019 season.
Take the offensive tackle position. Veteran Shon Coleman was injured during the preseason and was placed on injured reserve on August 12, 2019. Both starting tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey suffered injuries during the regular season. Instead of a veteran player to step in for the starting offense, the 49ers played unprepared rookie Justin Skule for a few games.
On defense, the 49ers had two key players succumb to season-ending injuries – nose tackle D.J. Jones and defensive lineman Ronald Blair.
Jones was having a solid season, despite struggling in Week 6 against the Los Angeles Rams, until a high-ankle sprain in Week 14 cut his season short.
Blair tore his ACL during Week 10, and the 49ers placed him on injured reserve on November 13, 2019.
I will admit my early skeptical attitude toward Blair; blame a former beat writer for the team who wouldn’t stop sniffing Blair’s jockstrap. It’s one thing for a pro football writer to have an opinion, but quite another to grossly ignore objective journalism.
The world is in dire need of honesty now, no matter how insignificant. So, I won’t hide behind any prior Tweets or comments about Blair. I was wrong, and he has been a high-quality reserve player over the past two seasons.
Blair’s role for the 49ers’ this fall is clear: he is an ideal substitute edge defender that defensive coordinator Robert Saleh can rely upon when defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Dee Ford need a breather.
With Blair hurt during the back half of the 2019 season, Saleh was forced to once again play defensive lineman Solomon Thomas on the edge. Additionally, the team signed defensive lineman Anthony Zettel on December 23, 2019.
Zettel was not the edge defender the 49ers needed down the stretch, and Thomas has no business handling the end of the line of scrimmage.
We can debate Thomas’ overall ability at a different time, but it is a known fact that he is not an NFL edge defender.
Super Bowl: 1st and 10 at the KC 20 (4:27)
The need for Blair as the reserve edge defender was evident during the 49ers’ fourth defense in the Super Bowl. Saleh’s stomach must have hit the turf each series Zettel trotted on the field.
Zettel’s talent is not in the same realm as Bosa. While Blair is also a step-down, his motor and ability still make him a formidable threat.
Kansas City’s offensive coordinator must have noticed the substitution and took advantage of a far weaker player at the edge.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes ran a run-pass option on the second play. He faked a handoff, saw Zettel knife too far down the line of scrimmage, and pulled the ball from running back Damien Williams.
Linebacker Kwon Alexander chose to cover tight end Travis Kelce, who was executing a fake sift block and heading to the left flat. Tight end Blake Bell ran a short seam route, and Mahomes found him in a honey hole.
Blair Earned His New Contract
People love to talk about a “contract year” as the reason Arik Armstead’s play improved in 2018 and 2019. Oddly, I don’t see the same comments regarding Blair, who nearly doubled his career sack count in 2018. He also improved his run defense and pass rush last season.
Teams sign and pay players for future play, and Lynch saw the 49ers would reap continued improvements from Blair.
A great defense is the sum of its parts, not just shouldered by one position group. We’ve witnessed the results of Saleh’s defense when it lacks capable edge defenders, both in past seasons and during critical games.
Blair is an ideal man to play 20-25 snaps per game and ensure there is no talent drop.
You can follow Bret on Twitter here!
Stay tuned to 49ersHub for more great 49ers coverage and analysis!