• Bret Rumbeck

What Went Wrong: How the Defense Failed to Contain Fitzpatrick

Image Credit: 49ers

The beauty of the San Francisco 49ers defense in 2019 was its near-flawless domination of its opponents. Try to run, and the ball carrier would get stuffed. Try a pass, and if Nick Bosa didn’t slam the quarterback to the turf, the four-man defensive line would generate enough pass rush to cause an errant throw.

But it is this foul year 2020, and anything good in life has come crashing back down to earth in a fiery heap.

Call it whatever you wish, but I thought the 49ers’ defense, even with all the injuries, was going to handle a journeyman quarterback like Ryan Fitzpatrick.

But the 49ers were grossly underprepared for the Dolphins, and Fitzpatrick was able to keep trading in his three magic beans for a win.

The Brian Allen Mistake

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh might be a top candidate for a head coaching job next season. The first question from any future employer needs to be why he chose to start cornerback Brian Allen against the Dolphins.

Allen’s NFL career has amounted to 183 special teams snaps for the Pittsburgh Steelers between 2017-2018. He did not play a single snap in 2019 and joined the 49ers’ practice squad on September 16, 2020.

Before Week 5, Allen had never played a regular-season snap at defensive back in his career.

Despite all signs pointing to the obvious answer, moving Jimmie Ward to cornerback and Marcell Harris to safety, Saleh felt that Allen was good enough to start at cornerback against the Dolphins.

Fitzpatrick is one of the smartest men to play quarterback, and he’s been around long enough to smell fresh meat. Naturally, he targeted Allen six times, completing five passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. Allen also gave up four first downs and a 47-yard pass play to start the game.

Fitzpatrick didn’t have to try anything complex against Allen. No, he had his receivers run go routes and watch the flat-footed Allen look as lost as a child in a corn maze.

The early big plays aroused the smell of dejection among the 49ers’ defense, which hit Fitzpatrick’s senses like a freight train. He was throwing footballs into tight spaces or slinging it downfield at will, and the 49ers had no answer on how to end the misery.

A Non-Existant Pass Rush

The loss of defensive ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, and defensive linemen Solomon Thomas and Ronald Blair have returned the 49ers’ defensive line to its most lowly state.

Saleh’s scheme needs speed and violence from the edge rushers to create disruption. He could rush four men last year because there was enough power to have it ripple into the secondary.

Interior players like defensive lineman Arik Armstead and rookie defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw are not enough to carry the defense and succeed.

The “next man up” philosophy is an excellent one-liner, but it does not translate into football reality. The lack of talent in the secondary and up front limits the stunts Saleh can call.

The Dolphins took the ball at the 12-minute mark in the 2nd quarter. They were only up by seven points, so the game was still well within hand.

Fitzpatrick opened the series with a 17-yard scramble and then proceeded to march the Dolphins down the field with ease.

He found Williams matched up against Allen for a 19-yard gain, and a few plays later, the officials called defensive pass interference on Allen, which took the Dolphins down to the 49ers’ one-yard line.

Linebacker Fred Warner stopped running back Myles Gaskin short of the goal line. The Dolphins were then called for a clip, pushing them back to the 49ers’ 16-yard line. Defensive lineman Kerry Hyder sacked Fitzpatrick for a six-yard loss, creating a third-and-goal from the 22-yard line.

Here was the moment in the game to grab momentum or create an artificial spark. Yet, Saleh had to play it safe. He called a you-me stunt between Hyder and Armstead on the left side of the defensive line and then hoped the four men up front would somehow fluster Fitzpatrick.

It didn’t, and Fitzpatrick politely threw a touchdown pass.

And the Poor Execution Returned

The Dolphins were not about to let their collective foot off the accelerator on Sunday and continued to run up the score.

In the third quarter, already up 16 points, the Dolphins found themselves at a long third-and-16 with 6:49 on the clock.

It made sense for the 49ers to drop back into coverage and allow the short pass, especially considering the passing clinic Fitzpatrick was displaying. But there was an evident lack of execution from linebacker Kwon Alexander.

3rd Quarter: 3rd and 16 at the MIA 19 (6:49)

I’m at a loss as to where Alexander was going or who he thought he was covering, but it opened up the entire middle of the field for Fitzpatrick and Gaskin, who gained 15 yards. The Dolphins ran a fake punt on the next play and were able to obtain a first down. They scored seven points three plays later.

It Points Back to Saleh

The 49ers were outplayed, outmatched, and underprepared coming into Week 5.

Saleh’s decision making and preparation deserve to be questioned, especially after letting Allen play 24 snaps as a starting defensive back. If anything, I hope this kills the “wait-and-see” approach the 49ers coaches have taken with some players.

The 49ers still have a shot at clawing their way to a winning record, but it will take some weighty introspection from the coaching staff to the right the ship.

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