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49ers defense was strong against play action in 2014

The San Francisco 49ers defense dealt with a lot of injuries in 2014, and yet somehow they did some great work. One area they found success was in defending play action.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Game-charting has become a bigger deal with Pro Football Focus getting in on the action. But before PFF got in the game, Football Outsiders had begun their own game-charting. During the offseason they roll out a variety of stats from the game-charting, providing a variety of nuanced looks at what their defense can do.

Last week, they took a look at how defenses perform against the play action passing game. The San Francisco 49ers topped the charts the best defense against play action, and the biggest difference between defending play action, and defending non-play action. The difference was close to the second place team, but their defense against play action was solidly ahead of the rest of the pack.

FO struggled to find correlations between certain characteristics and strong play action defense. A solid pass rush came up, and while there was a correlation, it was fairly weak. The 49ers were 16th in adjusted sack rate last season, with that number knocked down in part because of Aldon Smith's suspension. The team will hopefully have him for 16 games this season, which should boost the pass rush.

The 49ers had substantial turnover at inside linebacker last season, which makes their play action coverage all the more interesting. They opened the season with Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite starting at linebacker, with hopes NaVorro Bowman would return during the season. A toe injury sidelined Willis, and Chris Borland took over. The final two weeks saw Nick Moody and Desmond Bishop getting opportunities after Borland went on injured reserve.

There are plenty of components required to defend against play action, but inside linebackers can be particularly important. The 49ers lost the coverage skills of Willis and Bowman last season, but Borland and Wilhoite did enough in certain aspects of the game. Wilhoite was the weaker link at times, but he returns with Bowman re-joining the fold. We don't know how Bowman will look when the pads go on, but all signs point up right now.

A strong return to form from NaVorro Bowman, and a full season of Aldon Smith could provide critical assistance to a defense undergoing plenty of transition. If they both return anywhere near to form, the 49ers defense will benefit tremendously.