FOOCH'S NOTE: I thought this was a very solid piece and definitely worth opening up for greater discussion. It's lengthy, but down at the end grantmp has put together some impressions and questions for folks to answer. Definitely worth checking out.
This is a breakdown and analysis of the situations in which the Niners got their sacks in the 2008 season. Overall, the team was ranked 16th in the league with 30 sacks. As you’ll notice below, I’ve only documented 22, so obviously I’ve missed some. Let me know where and when, and I’ll add them to this post down the line. My methodology here was the following:
1) search through the game play-by-play recaps for times when the Niners got a sack
2) look up that instance in the game in question
3) Note the time, down and distance
4) Analyze the offensive and defensive formations including the Niners’ personnel
5) Describe the play as it developed
6) Explain why it happened beyond all the flying bodies—i.e. assign praise or blame.
The reason why I wanted to do this was because I wanted to have something other than a nebulous sense of who did what in terms of rushing the passer in the 2008 season—I plan on making this a tradition.
I know this is a ridiculously long post, but it did take some effort, so I’ve left some thoughts I was left with to the bottom of the post in the hopes that people will read my analysis, which gives the reasoning for my thoughts (since I won’t at the bottom). If you disagree with me, you’ll have to do the digging, because I’ll likely have a comeback. I appreciate the rec’s and the votes in the poll, but I’m most interested in having a good and informed conversation about the Niners pass rush in 08 and looking forward.
Let’s dive in!
Week 1 vs. Arizona
1st Q 0.20 Smith/Haralson
Setting: 3rd & 6, Arizona 30 yard line: Arizona in 4 WRs tight, rb left shotgun
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Green down (Left to Right) 1 LB, 6 DBs
Harris blitzes from his NB spot, Green drops into coverage, Haralson stunts inside while Smith sets the right edge
Good pressure overall, Smith and Haralson converge after Warner scrambles into Smith's path in order to avoid Haralson, who comes relatively free.
2nd Q 6.49 Haralson
Setting: 3rd &6, SF 40 yard line: Arizona in Trips Bunch Left, rb right, flanker right, shotgun
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Green down, 1 LB, 6 DBs
Straight rush, Haralson runs a wide bend around Levi Brown, falls behind Warner, who backs into his arms in an effort to evade McDonald's pressure
A coverage sack. McDonald was getting facemasked/held for most of the play, but still got pressure (after a while).
3rd Q 9.01 Haralson
setting: 3rd & Goal: Arizona in 3 WR singleback set
Green, Smith, McDonald, Haralson, 2 LBs, 5 DBs
Haralson runs the corner again, flat-out beats Leonard Pope; Warner looking left the whole way--a classic sack out of the Nickel Defense
Good coverage (Roman, Harris, and Clements on Boldin and Fitzgerald), but Warner didn't have time
Week 2 vs. Seattle
4th Q 1.23 M. Lewis
3rd & 16, Seattle 35 yard line: Sea in 3WR Singleback
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Green, M.Lewis and Harris at NB, Willis at MLB (6 DBs)
Green drops into coverage, Willis and Lewis blitz, Hasselbeck takes a deep drop looking left, Smith sets the right edge, Lewis runs all the way around the pocket and sacks Hasselbeck
Lewis came fairly free and Hasselbeck didn't have time to get to his second read.
Week 3 vs. Detroit
1st Q 6.30 Smith
3rd & 6 Det 9 yard line: Det in Trips Bunch Left, rb right, flanker right
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Green, 1LB, 6 DBs
Haralson takes an inside rush after McDonald runs a stunt over the LT, meanwhile Smith beats his man (Raiola) with a power rush to a spin move, glides through the trash, knocks the ball out and plants Kitna
Excellent pressure overall; McDonald would've had Kitna if Smith hadn't. The only downside was that the Lions recovered and punted well out of the end zone
2nd Q 4.58 R. Green
3rd & 4 SF 52 Yard Line: Det in Singleback, 2 TEs
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Green, 1 LB, 6 DBs
Straight rush, good pressure up the middle, Kitna scrambles to his left after Smith collapses the pocket coming in from that side, gets cut off by McDonald, Green cleans up the play
Good coverage, but Smith's pressure forced Kitna to scramble. Props to McDonald and Green for not quitting on the play. It looked like Kitna had an angle on getting back to the line of scrimmage, but McDonald beat him to the sideline and forced him into Green's waiting arms.
3rd Q 5.22 R. Green
3rd & 10 Det 33 yard line: Det in 3 WR (2 tight right, 1 split left), 2 RB shotgun
Haralson, Smith, McDonald, Green, 2 LBs (Spikes, Willis), 5 DBs
Straight rush, Green runs the corner around the LT, flushes Kitna to the right side and chases him down for the sack.
The coverage was good, and Smith got decent pressure despite being double-teamed, but this one belongs to Green and his speed.
4th Q 2.00 Haralson
1st & 10, SF 30 yard line, Det in 4 WR, RB left, shotgun
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Green, 1 LB, 6 DBs
Haralson runs right around the RT (Cherilus, looking like a rookie), forces Kitna up into the pocket and takes him down. Cherilus pretends he was supposed to be blocking down. Green had the other edge covered, so Kitna had nowhere to go.
Haralson's all the way.
Week 5 vs. New England
1st Q 1.35 Haralson/Banta-Cain
3rd & 4, SF 45 yard line, NE in singleback, TE right, two WR left, one WR right
McDonald, Haralson, Smith, Banta-Cain, Willis all in there with 5 DBs; only Smith had his hand on the ground—lots of shifting pre-snap, but ultimately the 4 DL were as listed, and Willis was in coverage.
Haralson broke through the line running between Smith and McDonald and forced Cassel to his right (Banta-Cain ran behind Haralson, also through the line). Haralson chased him down him along with Banta-Cain.
Definitely a pressure sack; Cassel wanted to get rid of the ball to a dump-off player in the flat, but had no time to look downfield. It looked like an offensive run play with Haralson busting through the line like a FB and Banta-Cain running behind him. The motion also seemed to confuse the NE O-Line, as the Tackles didn’t really end up blocking anyone. McDonald kept contain on Cassel’s right side which gave him nowhere to go. This one is all Haralson in terms of the sack. Banta-Cain only got there after it Cassel was in the grasp.
2nd Q 6.02 McDonald
3rd & 6, SF 12 yard line, NE in 4 WR, RB right, shotgun
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Banta-Cain, Willis and 6 DBs
Smith is the first one to dent the pocket about 5 yards upfield, and just as he does, McDonald sheds his man. Cassel tries to scramble right, but Haralson keeps contain on Cassel’s right side, forcing Nick Kaczur back into Cassel who can’t avoid McDonald, who’s free by now to make the sack. Another pressure sack that Cassel had little time to play with. Funny that there were 3 guys on top of Cassel by the end (TBC, McD, and Haralson) when Smith’s pressure was what forced Cassel into being a ballcarrier rather than a QB.
2nd Q 0.20 Smith
3rd & 6, SF 10 yard line, NE in 4 WR, RB left, shotgun
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Banta-Cain, Willis, 6 DBs
Haralson gets upfield and forces Cassel to reload by jumping just as he wanted to throw to Moss on the right sideline; Cassel steps up, and Smith grabs him—this was actually negated by a penalty.
3rd Q 14.56 Sopoaga
1st & 10, NE 21 yard line, NE in Singleback, 2 TE left, 2 WR right
Smith, Sopoaga, Franklin, McDonald in a 4-man line, Spikes, Willis and Haralson and 4 DB’s
Nickel CB blitz from Cassel’s right side (no effect) Haralson drops into coverage as Cassel looks left. Cassel doesn’t get to his second read, as Sopoaga breaks around the guard like a DE after Smith twists inside of him. McDonald was right around the ball too, preventing Cassel from scrambling to his right.
3rd Q 9.12 Willis
3rd & 8, SF 40 yard line, NE in 4 WR (3 right, 1 left), RB left, shotgun
Banta-Cain, McDonald, Smith, Haralson, Willis, M.Lewis on the line showing blitz, and 5 other DBs
Niners show blitz and bring 5 guys (TBC, McD, Smith, Har98 and Willis—Lewis goes up to jam the RB). Cassel gets a beat to throw, but when he goes to his second read, Haralson breaks through the line with a FANTASTIC swim move after stunting inside between TBC and McD and nearly sacks him. Cassel breaks out of the tackle and scrambles right but only to meet up with PWilly.
Week 8 vs. Seattle
3rd Q 4.03 Lawson
1st & 10 Sea 40 yard line, Sea in I-Form, 2 WR (1 left, 1 right)
Sopoaga, Franklin, Smith (3-man line), Lawson, Spikes, Willis, Haralson, 4 DBs
Seattle runs play-action to roll-out right for Wallace. Lawson is running to Wallace’s right with a TE (Carlson). When Wallace sees noone open, he steps out of bounds just behind the line. No actual tackle—it’s a stat sheet sack and a coverage sack that Lawson earned by covering his man rather than attacking the quarterback. Sopoaga did get pressure that may have forced Wallace into rolling the play right rather than it being designed to go that way.
Week 11 vs. St. Louis
1st Q 6.30 Lawson
1st & 10, St. Louis 20, St. Louis in Singleback, 4WR (3 bunch left, 1 right)
Balmer, Fields, Smith, (3-man line) Lawson, Spikes, Willis, Haralson, 4 DBs
Lawson and the 3 linemen rush. Bulger gets good time to throw, but feels like the pocket is closing in from the right after Balmer keeps contain and then drops in when he’s about parallel with Bulger, Bulger steps up in the pocket and goes down. Lawson pushes the Tackle (Pace) back, and then also drops in when he sees Bulger stepping up, and is the first guy there to touch him down.
2nd Q 7.42 Harris
1st & 10, St. Louis 40, St. Louis in Singleback, 4 WR (2 right, 2 left)
Sopoaga, Franklin, Smith, (3-man line), Lawson, Spikes, Willis, Banta-Cain, 4 DBs
St. Louis runs a play-action end-around where WR (Looker) looks to throw it downfield but gets tripped up when Harris comes in from his LCB spot. Actually quite a good play by Harris, since he was about 5-10 yards downfield at the snap. When he saw Looker get the ball, he was looking to put a lick on him—he caught him about 3 yards behind the line.
2nd Q 2.13 M. Lewis
2nd & 2, SF 43, St. Louis in 3 WR (2 left, tight, 1 wide right), 1 TE, 1 RB right, shotgun
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, TBC, Willis, M. Lewis on the line (at ROLB)
TBC drops into coverage and 5 guys rush (Lewis, Haralson, McDonald, Willis and Smith). Lewis blitzes, beats the pass-blocking RB and drops Bulger fully 10 yards behind the line. Bulger had no time to throw—an impressive play by Lewis. Neither the tackle nor the TE took a shot at Lewis (both blocked down), so he had good momentum by the time he was in the backfield and he just overwhelmed the blocker to take down the QB
3rd Q 9.43 Haralson
3rd & 6, SF 42 yard line, SF in 4 WR (1 left, 3 right), RB right, shotgun
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Green (4-man line), Willis, Spikes 5 DBs
Niners rush 4, a big pocket opens up, but good coverage forces Bulger to hold on too long. Haralson bent the corner very wide, but finally swum past him, pursued Bulger (who was looking left) from the back and made the sack. Willis was right there as well when the RB stayed back in to block.
Week 12 vs. Dallas
3rd Q 1.36 Lawson
1st & 10, SF 27 yard line, Dallas in 3 WR (2 left, 1 right), 1 TE, RB left, shotgun
Sopoaga, Fields, Smith (3-man line), Lawson, Spikes, Willis, Haralson and 4 DBs
Niners blitz 6 and when the LT blocks down, the RB (Barber) tries to go low on Lawson. Lawson corrals Romo for an 8 yard sack.
This was an example of what you want to happen when blitzing actually happening. Lawson got a free run because the line was worried about the rest of the guys, Barber threw a pretty weak block, and Lawson made no mistake.
Week 13 vs. Buffalo
3rd Q 2.39 Haralson
1st & 17, Buffalo 25 yard line, Buffalo in 4 WR (2 right, 2 left), RB left, shotgun
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Green (4-man line), Willis, 6 DBs
Niners rush 4. Haralson tries unsuccessfully to turn the corner on the RT, ends up 10 yards up-field. When Losman steps up after having plenty of time to throw, Haralson chases him down from behind before Losman can get up to the line of scrimmage. Either a coverage sack, or a JP-Losman-sucks sack. Good hustle by Haralson, though, to come back downfield after being driven (what looked like) out of the play.
4th Q 5.56 Green
3rd & 4, SF 20 yard line, Buffalo in 3WR (2 right, 1 left), 2 RB, shotgun
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Green (4-man line), Willis, Spikes, 5 DBs
Green stunts inside, but is shut off by the guard initially. Losman again doesn’t get rid of the ball and when he steps up toward the line of scrimmage, Green is there along with 4 other Niners. Looks to be another coverage sack/Losman suckitude sack. Good job by the LBs to shut down any last second outlets for Losman.
4th Q 1.42 Smith
2nd & 10, Buffalo 19 yard line, Buffalo in 4 WR, RB right, shotgun
Haralson, McDonald, Smith, Green(4-man line), Willis, 6 DBs
Same play as the last sack. Niners rush four, McDonald beats his man and forces Losman to his left, Green stunts inside after Smith drives his man outside (into Green’s area). Losman slides to his left in order to avoid McDonald, enters Smith’s area and Smith sheds the Guard sacks Losman. The key to the play was McDonald’s pressure; he beat his man, which never allowed Losman to get comfortable in the pocket. Smith did well to shed his blocker, though, and it this sack pretty well sealed the Bills fate in the game.
- Smith is an absolute work horse. He probably isn’t the most skilled pass rusher in terms of his repertoire, but he is very powerful and gives you everything you want out of a Nickel/Dime DT and a 3-4 DE. Never gives up on the play and is very powerful.
- McDonald’s play was underrated, I think. Although he only ended up with 1 sack all year, he was in on a lot of the plays I looked at, and he caused quite a bit of pressure, leading to sacks for others. Obviously his strength isn’t like Smith’s but he is quick off the snap and sheds blocks quite well. This is a place where they could stand to upgrade—and RJF may be that guy—but you could definitely do worse than to have McDonald back, assuming that he’s healthy.
- Haralson displays good quickness off the line and around the corner, and there are many instances cited above where he got the sack with hustle rather than flat-out talent. He occasionally bends the corner too wide and gets pushed out of the play entirely, but he’s a guy I like quite a bit going forward.
- Roderick Green did get the occasional sack, but in general, if there were few plays in which I saw him contributing for other players in the way McDonald did. He doesn’t seem to play to his size—despite the fact that he’s a couple inches taller than Haralson, he looks small out there. The Niners had him drop into coverage a few times when he was lined up on the D-Line, so that may be skewing my perspective on him but he did the opposite of jumping off the screen for me. He did set the edge helpfully on some of these plays, preventing the QB from scrambling. If I recall correctly, Green won’t be back. I’d add that if he is back, it’s not a good sign.
- TBC began getting into games in Week 5 (@ NE), and generally did not impress. He looked like he was trying, but as though he didn’t have the athletic talent or pass rushing skill to really be any kind of force. The half-sack he was credited for was all Haralson’s work. Not to say that he was an absolute liability, but I’m not sad to see him back with the Pats.
- Lawson was given VERY few opportunities to rush the passer. From what I saw, he was never lined up as a DE in the Nickel and Dime packages, which suggests that the Niner coaching staff was far from convinced that he can come into that role and contribute. Some of that may have changed with Nolan being gone, and with his knee being fully healthy, but I’m not sure what to say. The sack against the Cowboys was good, but not great because Barber did a poor job in trying to block him. The biggest difference will come if and when Lawson takes over the Rod Green/TBC role as the 2nd Nickel/Dime DE. He shows good quickness, but he is really high cut so I’m not sure he’ll have the leverage to be a force as a pass rusher. This is definitely a wait-and-see job.
- Neither Franklin nor Fields was a factor in rushing the passer.
- Patrick Willis was seldom assigned the task of rushing the passer; he was more often assigned to the running back and went after the QB when the RB stayed in to block. Obviously when the QB becomes a RB, Willis goes after him with reckless abandon, but he’s not exactly a polished pass rusher.
- M. Lewis was actually quite impressive. He did a good job as a blitzer, and never whiffed when he got a chance to take the QB down (at least when I looked). It’d be interesting to see what he’d be like as a quasi NB/LB in a dime package, because his judgment is so good for sniffing out run plays.
- It was interesting to note that on the plays when the Niners got a sack, very few of them actually came by way of the blitz—especially on 3rd down. The vast majority of the time, the Niners rushed 4.
- What was more effective was when a D-Lineman would drop into coverage and the NB would blitz from the other side. They ran this play a few times of the set I watched, and often the unbalanced line threw the O-Line for a loop and gave the edge guy a free run to the QB while the opposite tackle stood around blocking nobody. If the Niners do stick with the 3-4, these seem to be the kind of plays that are most likely to be effective, since the odd angles from which these blitzes come are what do the most to confuse QBs.
- The most effective group for running twists and stunts was Haralson, Smith and McDonald. When Rod Green or TBC was involved, the twist did nothing to get pressure, generally speaking.
So, some questions:
Do you think the Niners’ sack total will go up or down in 2009?
How much of a difference will the switch of Mark Roman for Dashon Goldson make (assuming that switch becomes permanent)?
Do you think the Niners will regret not picking up Everette Brown in round 2?
Is there someone you’re excited to see rush the passer in 2009?
And, finally, vote in the poll: