Throughout training camp, the San Francisco 49ers worked a rotation of linebackers to determine who to would start at inside linebacker with All Pro NaVorro Bowman. The rotation was between Ray Ray Armstrong, Gerald Hodges, and Michael Wilhoite. All three shared drives relatively evenly during the preseason. Head coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil gave praise evenly to each player through the preseason.
Week 1 vs. Rams: Armstrong emerged as the starter and played the majority of defensive snaps (42, 69%), with Hodges (19, 31%) significantly less, and Wilhoite limited only to special teams.
Week 2 @ Panthers: Hodges (56, 67%) and Armstrong (27, 33%) basically traded percentages with Hodges taking over after Armstrong left the game with an injured pectoral muscle. Wilhoite still remained restricted to special teams.
Week 3 @ Seahawks: Hodges kept his lead on the snap count (59, 86%) with Armstrong on IR. Wilhoite and and the newly promoted Nick Bellore had equal snap counts (9, 13%). Shayne Skov was also promoted but worked exclusively on special teams.
Week 4 vs. Cowboys: This was the game in which Bowman ruptured his Achilles. Wilhoite played all of the defensive snaps, Bellore played the second most snaps (29, 38%) behind Bowman, while Hodges seemed to get demoted to playing only special teams.
Week 5 vs. Cardinals (TNF): Bellore was on the field for all of the defensive snaps with Wilhoite playing the second most (53, 78%) and Hodges third (11, 16%)
Week 6 @ Bills: Bellore again was on the field for every defensive snap with Wilhoite who only missed a few (74, 94%), Hodges significantly less (4, 5%) and Skov only seen o special teams.
After the game Kelly was asked if Skov was going to see some time at OLB and his response was:
I think we need to get a look at some other people, especially at inside linebacker. I think Nick played 80 snaps. He was our leading guy there. We do rotate on the D-Line, but I think at inside linebacker we need to get a little bit better rotation going there.
Week 7 vs. Buccaneers: Bellore still had nearly all of the snaps (74, 99%) while Hodges had significantly more (61, 81%), Wilhoite’s count was reduced (13, 17%), and Skov remained active only on special teams.
When Kelly was asked about the snap counts being flipped in Week 7, he had this to say:
Yeah, Mike played a lot against Buffalo and then evaluating the film we thought we’d give Gerald another shot to go back in there. So, Gerald had a good week of practice taking that role and kind of running with it, so we felt that we felt comfortable as a staff that we were going to start Hodgy in there with [LB Nick] Bellore and then also rotate Mike through. We talked about Nick Bellore playing too many snaps, so trying to rotate those three guys through there so we really had three inside linebackers roll in there.
When Kelly was asked why Tank Carradine didn’t play on defense:
Just the rotation that those guys had going. I think they felt really comfortable with what [LB] Eli [Harold], Aaron’s reps were up a little bit coming back. I think he’s got a little bit more wind in him in terms of where we are. We felt [LB Ahmad Brooks] Brooksy was playing really well. So, they tried to keep Aaron in the game as much as they can. So, it was just a rotation. And [outside linebackers coach Jason Tarver] Tarv’s in charge of those guys on game day in terms of the rotation that we’ve got going at the outside linebacker spot.
Kelly’s idea of a rotation during the preseason was linebackers alternating series but his idea of rotation now seems to be switching off games. While the team is trying to find a combination on the defense that has some ability to stop the run, it would seem logical to run different combinations throughout the game.
Kelly’s comments seemed to indicate that Bellore was taking too many snaps and a rotation would relieve that physical strain, keeping freshness at the ILB spot. The next game, however, Bellore played all but one defensive snap. It’s understandable that a head coach would not throw players under the bus in a press conference for performance on or off the field but his explanations just don’t ring true to what is happening with the game day line ups.
Who will have the most snaps when the 49ers return from the bye week and face New Orleans? We will just have to wait and see because there isn’t an obvious pattern to the amount of playing time that players get.