The San Francisco 49ers pass rush has been a significant question mark through the first two games. Corey Lemonier and Ahmad Brooks rank at the bottom of Pro Football Focus's OLB rankings, and even without their grading system, we could figure out that they have struggled thus far.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio spoke to the media on Thursday, and he was asked about Lemonier in particular. He mentioned something in particular that I had not noticed, but Bay Area Sports Guy pointed out. Fangio talked about the use of pass rush games with Lemonier:
Where is LB Corey Lemonier in his development right now?
"He's developing. He's a guy that got to play three or four hundred plays last year. Has played a fair amount of plays so far in these first two games. We'd like to see him rush the passer a little bit better than he has in these first two games. But, he's the developing and he's still a good young player that we like for the long haul."
When you say rush the passer a little bit better, have you talked to him about doing different things? He seems to take the same path each time to the quarterback. Changing it up, adding new moves to his arsenal?
"Obviously, everybody's got to have a couple pitches. It's like in baseball; you just can't be a fastball pitcher. You've got to have some off-speed pitches there. We run games with him. He was involved in games. Those are part of being different pitches. But, you can't do it every play. So, he's just got to rush a little bit better on an individual basis and then we've got to rush better as a unit, also."
I've explained pass rush games before, but the CliffsNotes version is that it means when defensive linemen exchange pass rush lanes or gaps between offensive linemen in order to confuse them or create a two-on-one situation. It's important to note that you rarely see NFL players running pass rush games well these days, so it's even more rare to see them even run on the college level. To see offensive linemen pass them off as if they knew it was coming is a whole other story ... and a lot more impressive.
Fangio hit the nail on the head with his discussion of needing a couple different pitches when a player is rushing the passer. Obviously there are some rare athletes like Mariano Rivera who can get by with just the cut fastball. And in the same way, there is the occasional pass rusher who has the power to just destroy an opposing blocker. But those players are rare. Justin Smith relies a lot on his power, but even he can occasionally use bursts of speed to make plays in the backfield.
Corey Lemonier and Aaron Lynch are two guys that could rely on a single weapon at the college level, but will need to build their arsenal at the NFL level. Lemonier showed a lot last year, but has struggled this year. Lynch has already shown he has the power and wingspan to do some great things, but he will need to continue to develop the finesse side of his game.
The 49ers have given Lynch 38 snaps thus far, and he has looked quite solid. I don't think he is going to surpass Lemonier on the depth chart anytime soon, but it will be interesting to see if his snap count increases as the year moves on. The 49ers have to figure things out without Aldon Smith in the lineup, but when Smith does eventually return, it will be interesting to see how the snap count is spread out behind him.