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Jim O'Neil's run defense problem

Let's take a look at one major factor in the niners' lousy run defense

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It isn’t hard to notice that right now the San Francisco 49ers run defense is not very good, it has to be one of the most offensive run defenses I’ve seen. Ungood, dire, M.I.A., less than ideal, somewhat lacking when offering resistance, crap, abysmal. I’d even go as far as to say its’s a bad run defense.

To add some context, they’ve allowed 100 yards or more for five straight games, given up 150 or more in four of them, and capitulated against the Bills when they surrendered 312 yards at 7.1 yards per carry.

The advanced stats don’t look as bad on first inspection with only a run defense DVOA of -0.2%. However, because running the ball is less effective than throwing that’s still a pretty bad number; the league average for run defense is approximately -11.5% (negative is good for defense) so the 49ers -0.2% ranks No. 28 in the league and they managed a catastrophic 26.3% against Buffalo according to Football Outsiders premium database.

Unfortunately this is not new territory for Jim O’Neil; his Cleveland run defense ranked No. 31 in run DVOA in 2014 and No. 26 in 2015 while the O’Neil-free 2016 Browns have improved to a near average No. 19.

So this is a problem that seems to carry across two different defensive squads that improved when he was removed from the picture, this suggests it’s an issue with the scheme and the Ryan family defense does use an unusual system when defending the run.

We are used to hearing defensive schemes described as either one gap, usually a 4-3 these days, where the defenders and linebackers are mostly concerned with controlling one gap between the blockers or a two gap, commonly a 3-4, where the big DLs manhandle a lineman to control the gaps either side so the linebackers have more freedom to flow to the ball.

The Ryan D does things slightly differently. While the outside linebackers set the edge as you’d expect in a 3-4*, the nose tackle is given the option to either “jump the center”, shooting the A-gap to either side, or play a more passive two gap while trying to keep his hips to the playside of the center’s.

This is fairly standard, it’s at end where things get a little unusual. The ends are taught to read the blockers and then disrupt what they are trying to do, they are not assigned a particular man to engage as they would be in a 2-gap scheme or a particular gap as you’d see in a 1-gap defense. Their actions depend on what they read in the blocking scheme on that play.

Behind this the linebackers are reacting to what the ends are doing, as Rex Ryan describes it in Coaching Football’s 46 Defense:

Our linebackers play two gap control. However, in the second it takes to seek and fill an open window, our linebacker usually becomes a one-gap player. He becomes a one-gap player when he correctly reacts to the three technique’s action on flow towards him.

In effect the linebacker is filling in behind the gap left by the actions of the end but he is not only supposed to be able to make the same read as the end and react accordingly, the LB is also required to react and fill in when the end is unable to prevent the blocking action that he is trying to disrupt.

The idea is that the defensive line are given license to read and disrupt while the linebackers fill in behind them so you have the aggressive DL play causing havoc in the blocking scheme while still having the security of a more conservative defensive scheme covering the gaps behind them.

The problem is that this requires everyone to be on the same page and getting everyone there has been a problem for O’Neil in the past. As a Browns source divulged to Kevin Jones of Sports Illustrated last year:

“It’s an entire guessing game,” said one source. “Imagine trying to define mud.”

This is further complicated because football has moved on quite a bit since the nineties, defenses are spending less time in base and more in sub packages which further confuses the reads as the DLs shift around and could be a NT, a DT or a DE on any given play which further muddies the waters.

So it's quite the understatement to say it's a complicated run defense that can take time to learn. Rex Ryan describes the process for a lineman facing an inside release:

An inside release can indicate several different things. A trapping guard may show from behind the inside release or a blocker may simply be attempting to release up through the next level to cut off a linebacker. For the defensive line, each of these scenarios requires a remarkably different defensive reaction. Although the blocks can be correctly interpreted in time and with practice, only the highly skilled defensive lineman will eventually be able to consistently respond to the subtle differences between the many inside blocks. An inexperienced defensive lineman will constantly face the dilemma of when to wrong-shoulder the trapper, or when to squeeze parallel to the line of scrimmage.

Buddy Ryan was one of the great coaches of defensive line play in NFL history and he has admitted that it took him several years to get his front seven playing the scheme correctly, even with a collection of Hall of Famers and pro-bowlers. You can see the variety of blocks and reactions Buddy was teaching his legendary 85 Bears' D on page 35 of their playbook and that was more than thirty years ago, NFL offenses have become much more complex. In his 1999 book Rex describes four blocking patterns with eleven different schemes in just one of those patterns. This might have been feasible in the eighties before unrestricted free agency but you don't get years to teach your players anymore. The reason our defense looks like they don't know what they're supposed to be doing and are repeatedly failing to fill the right gaps or even line up right is because the scheme is far too complex.

This is presumably why teams like Baltimore and Denver who run many elements of the Ryan scheme in their pass defense appear to have ditched the run defense part of the scheme in favor of more conventional schemes. There are several reports that even Rex himself has cut down on the complexity and simplified his approach in Buffalo this year and his run defense has improved from being 30th in DVOA in 2015 to 12th this year.

So O'Neil really needs to ditch this approach because while the pass defense has showed progress the run defense is killing us. If he wants to be in the job next year he should scrap the Ryan run defense and replace it with a one gap system which would fit with the single high safety/loaded front that we use in our pass defense. (And while he's at it, move Reid to free safety full time, why is our most athletic safety not in the most important position. Surely it makes more sense to have Tartt or Bethea playing strong safety closer to the line?)

Truly Terrifying Stat of the Week

Halloween is approaching fast so I'm going to leave you with a statistic that will chill any good hearted Niner fan to the bone...

Seriously, this is one scary stat, under no circumstances should this be shown to children or pets...

Before NaVarro Bowman was hurt the niners were allowing 4.1 yards per carry (4.5 ypc if you want to discount the Rams game) but since we lost Bo they've been gashed for 5.8 yards per attempt. I think we lost more than just a very good linebacker, we lost the only veteran in the front seven that could organize the defense.

Oracle gif me guy melting in Indiana Jones.