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All-22: Breaking down Quinton Dial's performance versus the Bears

The San Francisco 49ers defensive front has been inconsistent this season, and Quinton Dial has been no exception. It's time to take a look at his film from the 49ers overtime win over the Chicago Bears.

It feels like the only time we talk about Quinton Dial is after he’s been flagged for a bogus questionable roughing the passer penalty. But after flashing a few times this past week against the Bears, it seemed like a good time to take a closer look at the 49ers’ third-year defensive lineman.

Dial indeed jumped off the tape with a number of positive plays, though there were far more blemishes that popped up when reviewing the coaches tape than it appeared on first watch.

Let’s start with the positive. Dial’s six stops led all 49ers defenders and he recorded them in a variety of ways. The first came on the Bears’ opening offensive play of the game, in which he fought through a strong initial punch by right tackle Kyle Long, redirected once Matt Forte bounced outside, and made the tackle for a two-yard gain on first-and–10:

Dial didn’t win a lot of battles against Chicago’s excellent guard tandem of Matt Slauson and Patrick Omameh, but he got the better of Slauson on the following second-and–5 play midway through the third quarter. An effective swim move uses Slauson’s momentum against him, allowing Dial to quickly discard Chicago’s left guard before showing some nice athleticism for a 320-pounder to get across the formation and make the tackle on Forte:

The run game wasn’t the only area where Dial’s impact was felt, as half of his six stops came on pass plays. Dial’s awareness has always been something that’s stood out and it was on display during this screen pass with just under six minutes to go in the second quarter:

Dial sniffs out the screen immediately, fights through Slauson’s block, and stays in pursuit of Bears running back Jeremy Langford, which puts him in position to make the tackle once NaVorro Bowman and Eric Reid force the play back inside. Dial’s hustle limited the Bears to two yards on the play, setting them up with a third-and–16 they would not convert. Dial’s two other pass stops came on a similar play on a second-and-long screen to Forte in overtime, though a bit farther downfield, and Cutler pass early in the fourth quarter that he swatted down at the line of scrimmage.

But for every positive play Dial made on Sunday, there was at least one that tilted the scale in the opposite direction. He was out-muscled and pushed backward at the point of attack on several snaps, such as this play from early in the third quarter when Slauson succeeds in sealing him outside to open up the rushing lane for Langford:

Bears’ double teams might as well have been a literal road grader on several snaps, often resulting in massive push up front. That was the case on this play midway through the first quarter in which Long and sixth offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod move Dial about eight yards inside to open up the cutback lane for Langford:

Plays ending with Dial on the ground were all too common in this game. Slauson single-handedly buried Dial on multiple snaps, helping to open up a lane for Forte late in the first quarter…

…and later taking him to the turf in a nearly identical fashion in pass protection to allow Cutler to scramble out of the pocket for positive yardage:

There were several more similar plays, but I think you probably get the gist.

When Dial is on his game, he’s probably the best run defender along San Francisco’s defensive line. The problem, like so many other aspects of this team, is that Dial’s performance is inconsistent. By my count he’s now posted six stops in two separate games this season, something that only NaVorro Bowman can also say among 49ers defenders. But Dial has also failed to produce even a single stop in three games.

There’s a lot more that goes into playing well up front than just making stops, and the job of a 3–4 defensive lineman often amounts to freeing up linebackers to make plays. But as we can see from the plays above, even when Dial is doing a lot of things that show up in the play-by-play, his performance on snap-to-snap basis doesn’t always match up.

You might have noticed that there weren’t many examples of Dial rushing the passer, and that’s because he’s largely ineffective there. He’ll have the occasional play where he’s able to get pressure (usually arriving just a touch late and getting called for a roughing the passer penalty), but he doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher. This wasn’t as much of a problem early in the season, when he was playing almost exclusively in base defense. But with the injury to Glenn Dorsey and the ineffectiveness of Tank Carradine, Dial has started to see more time in sub-packages where it becomes more important to get after the passer.

In my 9 things I liked and didn’t like article from yesterday, I mentioned that San Francisco’s defensive line is comprised almost exclusively of players who would be better suited to rotational roles rather than pillars of a strong unit. Dial is no exception. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. From one perspective, you could argue becoming a solid rotational player as a fifth-round pick is a big positive. On the other hand, considering Dial has flashed the ability to be a very effective player, you could argue it’s been mildly disappointing that he hasn’t been able to perform at that level more consistently with increased opportunity in his third season.

Dial still has one more year remaining on his rookie contract, and at 25 years old, there’s still time for him to develop into a more consistent performer. But for now, it seems likely we’ll continue seeing the same kind of up-and-down games that Dial produced against the Bears.