Rush by Committee: Examining 49ers Defensive Line and Running Back Depth and How They Can Succeed
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If everyone will please take out your rosters and make the following changes for the Week 3 game against the New York Giants:
Out are defensive linemen Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, and Dee Ford. In are Ziggy Ansah and Dion Jordan.
Moving to the offensive side of the ball, out are running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman. In are Jeff Wilson and JaMycal Hasty.
The 49ers have made a heavy investment in the defensive line over the last five years, and last year it paid off in a Super Bowl run. Now, the depth will be tested with Bosa, Ford and Thomas out, and more than one person will have to step up.
The first person who needs to step up is defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Kocurek is needs to find a way to mix and match different combinations across the line to maximize their effectiveness.
Kocurek has made his NFL coaching career by getting the most out of the talent he has had. In 2015, the Detroit Lions finished tied for seventh in the NFL with 43 sacks. Leading the Lions in sacks that year was third-year defensive end Ziggy Ansah with 14½. As a first-round pick that level of production was expected of Ansah who had totaled 15½ sacks the previous two seasons combined, but it is not just first-round picks like Ansah that Kocurek that has been able to elevate.
Kerry Hyder, who is in his first year with the Niners, has been in the league for six seasons and has struggled to put up statistics except for when he is paired with Kris Kocurek. The two overlapped in Detroit in 2015 and 2016, and it was the 2015 season when Hyder had his best production, recording 8 of his 11 career sacks (Hyder has 1 sack through two games this season).
With the loss of Bosa and Ford on the edge, the middle of the line needs to be more of a force, and the loss of Solomon Thomas may be a blessing in disguise in that the Niners will be forced to give more snaps to Javon Kinlaw, Kevin Givens and Kentavius Street, each of whom is more explosive than Thomas.
The best course of action for the 49ers in their new reality is to use a heavy rotation to ensure that there are always fresh legs on the field, which might be easier to do without alphas like Bosa and Ford available.
The defensive line will not be the only group that is rush by committee on Sunday. The 49ers top two running backs from last season will be out when they take on the Giants. Lead back Raheem Mostert will miss Sunday’s, but his injury does not appear to be too serious. His backup, Tevin Coleman, could miss up to four weeks, however.
The loss of Mostert could loom large for the Niners, as he has been the team’s biggest big-play threat so far this year with a 76-yard touchdown reception in Week 1 and an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage in Week 2.
Despite not having a running back on the roster that makes more than $5 million (okay, technically Kyle Juszczyk makes a smidge over, but he is technically not a running back), the 49ers have the fifth highest positional spending at running back in the NFL. Instead of putting a bunch of money into a bell-cow runner, Kyle Shanahan prefers to have a stable of running backs who can share the load.
On Sunday, Shanahan is going to turn to Jerick McKinnon, Jeff Wilson and JaMychal Hasty. McKinnon is being eased in after missing two full seasons with a knee injury, but has shown the ability to make plays, scoring a touchdown in each of the first two games and converting a third-and-31 against the Jets last week. With McKinnon, the question is: how many touches can he handle at this stage of his comeback? He logged 19 snaps in Week 1, and 13 in Week 2.
The bulk of the snaps figure to go to Jeff Wilson. Wilson has shown the ability to be an effective runner and receiver out of the backfield in limited opportunities and had a career-high 23 carries against Denver in 2018.
The wildcard of the group is undrafted rookie JaMycal Hasty. Hasty was the talk of training camp per reports but without any preseason games he remains somewhat of a mystery (and the reason the 49ers were able to sneak him on to the practice squad). At 5-foot-8 and 205 pounds, Hasty is similar in stature to a former Shanahan running back, Devonta Freeman. The scouting report on Hasty is that he is elusive with good balance and good change-of-direction skills.
Hasty figures to rotate with Wilson on first and second downs with McKinnon getting the bulk of the third down snaps. Despite missing Mostert and Coleman, Shanahan figures to test a New York Giants run defense that surrendered 5.9 yards per carry (on 19 carries) to Steelers running back Benny Snell in Week 1 and 5.1 yards per carry (on 16 carries) to the Bears’ David Montgomery in Week 2. In addition to his yards on the ground, Montgomery was able to haul in three passes for 45 yards against the Giants. Shanahan loves to involve the running backs in the passing game, but look for Kyle Juszczyk to be a little more involved than usual as Shanahan looks for new ways to take advantage of Giants linebacker Blake Martinez in coverage.
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