This post shares thoughts on the possible implications of today's draft picks regarding the niners defensive schemes. I don't see these players meshing easily into all of the schemes that Fangio employed last year. Neither do I anticipate a change to an ordinary 4-3.
Last years most utilized defense (over 60% of snaps) was a nickel (5 DBs) with 2 ILBs (Willis and Bowman) and 4 other players (typically Brooks, McDonald, JSmith, ASmith, from right to left). One could call it a 4-2-5, though 2 of the 4 are OLBs. (Acronym table: DB = defensive back: (corners and safeties); ILB = inside linebacker); OLB = outside linebacker). From this defense the niners rarely rushed the quarterback with more than 4 players. I am pretty sure the percentage of rushing more than 4 was close to the lowest in the NFL. The niners relied on getting pressure from 4, and having an extra (5th) DB to enable them to hold coverage a bit longer. This was often effective, but did not work as well as we would have liked on some occasions and in the play-offs (when Justin and Aldon (and Ahmad) were banged up).
Reading the signs from the picks of the last two days I would predict that the 49ers will:
1) rush 5 players more often than last year,
2) mix in unconventional 4 DB (base) defenses,
3) further diminish their use of a traditional nose-tackle centered 3-4 base defense,
4) possibly play somewhat fewer snaps with 5 DBs (compared to last year).
Assuming a continued commitment to maintaining 2 ILBs (except in 6 DB "dime" situations, which are fairly rare), one can envision the possibility of unusual defensive schemes that can be best described by players rather than numbers. It starts with Willis and Bowman along with 2 safeties and two corners. The additional 5 players could then be:
Brooks Carradine McDonald JSmith ASmith
Brooks McDonald JSmith ASmith Lemonier (Lemonier could line up anywhere in this, for example)
Many combinations are possible and one can rush either 4 or 5 from any of these, with Brooks or ASmith (or Lemonier) dropping into coverage (if only 4 are rushing). It is a bit of an unconventional (psyche-type) defense in the sense that it has no real nose tackle (no massive body in the middle) and it is hard to anticipate who will drop into coverage and who will rush the QB. Add to that the possibly of an occasional blitz from Willis or Bowman, with 2 OLBs dropping into coverage…and this seems like it would be challenging for offensive blocking schemes. It is not something we have had the personnel for in the past.
Of course we will continue to use 5 DB schemes fairly frequently, in which case, there are only 6 players in the front, two of whom will presumably continue to be ILBs (Willis and Bowman), 2 are inside players (presumably 2 of: McDonald, Justin Smith and Tank Carradine), and 2 outside players (Brooks and Aldon, or Lemonier and Aldon ). This is our "standard" 2 ILB nickel. Carradine and Lemonier provide much needed depth for this scheme. (Maybe Haralson will find a role (as an OLB) as well.)
Last year we were very vulnerable to the pass in 3-4 base defense due to:
1) having not quality nose-tackle able to collapse the pocket or pressure the QB,
2) having just 4 DBs on the field.
This was part of the reason we had problems against teams with strong running backs (e.g., Minnesota, Seattle…). As you recall, we stopped Green Bay and Detroit (using about 85% nickel) to start the season, and then struggled against Minnesota, the first game in which our base defense was tested. This struggle was repeated on other occasions. I don't regret losing Sopoaga, he did not play very well, but unless Tukuafu or Ian Willams is a lot better than I anticipate, I am suggesting that we may play even less conventional 3-4 type base defense and instead mix in some of the unconventional 4 DB defenses described above, possibly with McDonald in the middle of the line (in a 1-tech spot).
Last year the niners never really had a great front seven. There was a great front 6: Brooks, McDonald, JSmith, ASmith, Willis, Bowmann. Maybe this year the addition of Carradine (and Lemonier) will enable use to put together a great front seven. A group that makes up for lack of size with great tackling, speed, skill and tenacity. A group that can stop the run and pressure the quarterback.