0-7. I don’t think many people really saw that coming. Maybe 1-6, maybe 2-5, but 0-7?! But the San Francisco 49ers are a winless team, coming off their biggest defeat at Levi’s Stadium, and going into a clash with one of the best teams in the NFC. I planned on a silver lining piece this week but given the nature of Sunday’s loss it was hard to find any. Fortunately, I saw a few things in the other games this week that the 49ers may want to copy (and no, one of them is not creating fog when ahead because we need to start getting ahead before we think about that).
Blitzing the nickel corner
The 49ers do this occasionally, or they blitz linebackers or dime backers. But they need to do it more consistently. They appear set to use more dime packages with the return of Eric Reid, so are better placed to be able to rush a primary coverage player and not suffer the drastic consequences of losing that player’s coverage abilities by handing his assignment to a linebacker. Reid has struggled a little in coverage this year, but as he gets more comfortable on his knee, we should see improvement.
The team that gave me this idea were the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers blitzed their nickel corner, Captain Munnerlyn, with regularity this week (he rushed on around 45 percent of his passing snaps, per PFF). Clearly they are looking for ways to force quarterbacks to step up in the pocket into the strength of their pass rush (along the interior) or (to his) left towards the ever-green Julius Peppers, as they are suffering a notable lack of production along their own left side.
By rushing from wider, the Panthers forced the Chicago Bears right tackle to have to set deeper or forced their running back to stay in an block. There was a greater threat that either would be beaten round the corner, forcing Mitchell Trubisky to step up or left in the pocket, towards the strength of their rush. The result? Trubisky was pressured on over 50 percent of his admittedly limited drop backs.
The 49ers have also struggled to get pressure this year, and their strongest rusher, DeForest Buckner, has only recorded 1.5 sacks on the year. This is in no small part due to the fact quarterbacks can happily set up a distance away from Buckner and have no need to step up in the pocket thanks to a lack of threat off the edge. By blitzing any one of their defensive backs from a nickel corner position (as opposed to lining them up in the A gaps or as a pseudo-LEO), the 49ers can force quarterbacks to step up into the pocket, taking them closer to Buckner.
Not only will this increase his chances of a sack, but it will make it considerably harder for them to throw over him to get completions over the middle. Additionally, this will mean that players such as Aaron Lynch (when he returns) and Solomon Thomas, who lack bend as rushers and are more north-south, can play to their own strengths as well rather than trying to turn the corner and playing contain. If the 49ers attack this way against Carson Wentz, they should be able to limit his mobility and play to the strengths of their pass rushers.
Alter their third down pass rushing fronts
Another way the 49ers can try to get to the quarterback better (you may be seeing a trend here) is by using a slightly different defensive front on third downs with more regularity. Instead of rushing with two 3-techs and two wide-9 pass rushers as has been a common method of Robert Saleh’s defense, they could take a leaf out of a number of teams’ books and put 3 rushers to one side of the defensive line. The 49ers have used this on occasion but should use it more often, whilst the Chargers and Seahawks notably have had a lot of success using this front.
They should rush Solomon Thomas from a 1-tech position, allowing him to attack the center. They should shade him towards DeForest Buckner, who will rush from his normal 3 technique spot. Then, you can line up your wide 9 rusher outside them on that side. The other rusher can align where he feels more comfortable in regards to the tackle on the other side, at anywhere from the 5-tech spot to the wide 9.
This would prevent teams from being able to double team DeForest Buckner so easily, making it a series of 1-on-1 battles across the line of scrimmage. If they want to try and shift the center across to Buckner post snap they will be asking a huge amount of him to win an initial battle with Thomas before passing him off to the uncovered guard who too will have to cover a lot of ground against an incredibly explosive player.
The 49ers could also blitz a linebacker or defensive back off the side where the three players are already aligned. This would force the opposition running back (or perhaps a tight end) to pass protect as well. The defender in isolation on the one side of the defensive formation could rush in space against the tackle, drop into a flat zone or operate as a quarterback spy. The latter two options would result in two of the opposition offensive linemen finding themselves without work and having to adjust and react post-snap, giving the advantage to the 49ers’ defense. This front also makes stunts easier to execute.
Use your safety at corner
Safeties are increasingly becoming defensive chess pieces. Keanu Neal has been used as a tight end eraser in Atlanta, Tyrann Mathieu has long been a chess piece in Arizona and Tyvon Branch also fulfils that role. Even Earl Thomas, the premier center field safety in football has been used on occasion as a nickel corner this season.
The 49ers have two such potential chess pieces in Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward and already split Tartt out wide when tight ends play on the boundary. But we have all seen the problems the 49ers’ corners have had with bigger receivers this season. Now that Eric Reid and Reuben Foster are back healthy, Tartt no longer has to prioritise covering the opposition tight end in certain situations. The 49ers should try and get one of Foster or Reid to take that assignment as much as possible whilst the other player handles the opposition running back.
Tartt is arguably the 49ers’ best cover man and if the 49ers’ corners are struggling against a bigger receiver (think Alshon Jeffrey, Larry Fitzgerald) then the team should think about seeing if Tartt can handle the responsibility. Of course, there may be a feeling amongst coaches that they don't want to put too much on the third year man’s plate. Nevertheless, given he has been the second best player on the defense (I’m excluding Reuben Foster due to a lack of snaps) and has played at an extremely high level, it certainly seems worth a shot.
Receive the kick-off
This sounds simple, but it might help this team if they can come out and try to take a lead. They’ve started slow all season and often find themselves getting the ball a second time on offense down two scores. As a result, they tend to get away from the running game early and never really get back to it, despite the way Carlos Hyde has run this season.
If the 49ers receive the kick off, they can try to establish the run early, get Hyde and rhythm and base their offense around the rushing attack. With C.J. Beathard being a threat as a read-option keeper and Marquise Goodwin, Kyle Juszczyk and Matt Breida being capable of being the third man in triple option, the 49ers can start to develop an exotic rushing attack that will keep defenses off balance and take the pressure of the solid if unspectacular Beathard.
Keep opposition defenses in base personnel and attack such packages with your tight ends and full back
This could also be a product of operating an exotic ground attack and (God forbid) actually jumping out to a lead and being able to run the ball consistently., but the 49ers can do it anyway. Players such as George Kittle, Cole Hikutini and Kyle Juszczyk are far more productive when matched up against linebackers rather than safeties but when on the field, are just as capable blocking for a running play as they are playing as receivers.
In 22 personnel (2 running backs and 2 tight ends), defenses are likely to line up in their base packages, anticipating a running play or simply backing their linebackers and strong safety to cover tight ends and full backs running routes. It seems obvious, but the 49ers should look to get their more heftier and more versatile weapons much more involved in the passing game.
With Beathard as quarterback we expect to see more of Kittle but Hikutini and Juszczyk both warrant more use now the former is on the 53 man roster. Get them matched up against linebackers. Split them out wide like the Patriots do to make Beathard’s reads easier. Get them running routes across the middle or downfield between the hash marks where Beathard has had most of his success. If defenses can’t cover them with linebackers they’ll have to move to nickel packages, risking being weaker against the run. Give the defenses a dilemma and let’s see what these young tight ends and the offensive weapon (when he returns from injury) have got.