This might seem like a provocative title, but the reality is we have been playing nickel most of this season.This may not be the case on Sunday against the Giants, moreover, the one game where base defense played a significant role was a game the 49ers lost.
Against Green Bay, Detroit, the Jets and Buffalo, the front 7 rarely emerged. We had a front 6: Brooks, McDonald, Justin and Aldon; along with Bowman and Willis. The performance of this front 6 this season leaves little doubt that it is part of a powerful defense. It stops the run with reasonable efficiency. Both Brooks and Aldon do a good job setting edges (one play against Buffalo on Aldon not withstanding), MacDonald and Justin Smith are stout inside. Bowman and Willis are stellar. This unit also generates considerable pressure on the quarterback on pass pass plays. Aldon and Brooks both have their share of pressures and hurries. McDonald and Justin Smith drive forward with considerable energy, generally doing a good job of collapsing the pocket and applying pressure. The secondary in this "front 6" defense is fortified by Culliver at left cornerback, who has been playing quite well, while the versatile and savvy Carlos Rodgers moves to slot corner. (Brown (rcb), Goldson and Whitner round out a strong secondary)
Against the Giants one would expect to see much more base defense since they run well between the tackles and are committed to that by offensive philosophy. Not a problem, you say. We bring in Sopoaga, who is quite stout against the run, and Culliver goes to the sideline, right?
We used the base defense quite a bit (50 snaps or so) against Minnesota and, truth be told, we had a little trouble getting off the field. One problem is obvious: Adrian Peterson is a heck of a great running back. The other is that as the game went on, particularly in the 2nd half, Minnesota used play action effectively and begin passing against our base defense. In that game, the pass pressure generated from base was not great. That compounds the obvious fact that the secondary is weaker with 4 DBs than 5. The 3 down lineman may have been tired (there were a lot more defensive snaps in that game than in any of our other games), however, what stood out to me was a lack of mobility at nose tackle. Sopoaga was not generating pressure on pass plays, nor was he doubled in any pass play I observed. Things did not look much better with RJF.
I think this week will be a critical test of our defense (base defense). We face a team with a good quarterback and a pretty good running game as well. (Last year our base/nickel mix vs the Giants was close to 50-50.) This is the sequel to the Minnesota game in my opinion. How this is coached and played on the 49er side will go a long way to determining, in my mind, how good the 49er defense is. We have proven that we have the personnel and schemes to stop excellent quarterbacks (Rodgers, Stafford, Tebow...). How will we fare in our 2nd test against a team with a balanced attack? Sopoaga and perhaps Smith are not getting any younger. Is there a possible weakness in the ability of our base defense to generate pressure? Are there young players on the team who can share some snaps and provide some energy?