Over the course of 11 weeks, the San Francisco 49ers defense has had a lot of bright moments. There is a lot of work to do, but the unit seems to be trending in the right direction.
One area that has been decidedly NOT a bright spot is times when the 49ers have dropped a defensive lineman into coverage. We don’t see it every time, but once in a while when things go south in a hurry, we see something like this.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STOP DROPPING EARL MITCHELL INTO COVERAGE pic.twitter.com/CaXSl6CyNs— Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) October 25, 2017
Earl Mitchell trying to play himself into a starting safety role. pic.twitter.com/PFFtSztz38— Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) September 17, 2017
It feels like we see something like this every weekend. A 300-pound defensive lineman drops into coverage and bad things happen. Seeing Ronald Blair covering Jimmy Graham is not my favorite thing to do on a Sunday.
On Thursday, as the 49ers prepare to face the Chicago Bears, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh offered some insight into that kind of play-call. Chris Biderman asked him first why they run that kind of play. Saleh had this to say.
For the most part, defensive linemen dropping into coverage can serve two purpose. One, when they’re trying to bring an overload to one side to overload a protection. And then the second part is when you’re trying to rush three, and just kind of plug the middle of the field to eliminate any crossers or any low holes, because in our natural three-deep defense, there’s a void in the middle. And to be able to plug that part of the field on occasion. So that’s basically what the main purposes are.
Biderman followed up by noting how when it does not work it can be a mess, but when it does work, it might go unnoticed. Saleh acknowledged it can be a high risk, high reward play. He offered up two examples of where the dropped call works.
We’ve had two interceptions on drop calls, both of Ray-Ray Armstrong’s interceptions came on dropped calls. We’ve had a couple of pass break-ups, and a couple of third down conversions that we were able to get off the field with drop calls.
But you’re right, when it doesn’t work it looks terrible. Last week, we were inside four minutes, so we ran a run stunt to see if we could create a TFL to get the ball back for our offense, and Ronnie Blair gets stuck on Jimmie Graham. Not what you want, not why you called it. But at that point in the game, we needed to create something, and they caught us.
There’s a lot of situations where it works, there’s some where it doesn’t. It’s a high risk, high reward play, and we’ve had some really good success, and you saw last week what happened with Ronnie — which I feel terrible for him, but we felt at that time, inside five minutes trying to get the ball back for our offense, create, wreak havoc in the backfield, maybe we can cause a turnover, something. And they caught us in a stunt.
I took a look back at the two Armstrong interceptions, and both were in goal-to-go situations. Oscar Aparicio put together GIFs of both of them.
Dropping a DL into coverage isn’t always an immediate a conversion for the offense. Sometimes it can result in a favorable 1 on 1 matchup while only rushing 3. The lineman that thought he was blocking Mitchell is now blocking air. #49ers pic.twitter.com/0NE5Bxp7g1— Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) November 30, 2017
Usually you see more athletic DEs (not bowling ball NTs) drop into coverage. Here Solly is able to use his elite athleticism. And since you’re in a compressed red zone area there is less ground to cover. #49ers pic.twitter.com/hKkjjrJ1xD— Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) November 30, 2017
The goal to go situation seems an ideal time if you are trying to take advantage of dropping a defensive lineman. Of course, it does not always work, as we saw in the final two GIFs where they failed in this decision.
It was helpful to get some insight into what Robert Saleh’s thought process is with these coverage decisions. I imagine it will still make me angry when I see Earl Mitchell dropping to cover a particularly athletic tight end, but at least there is some logic in this.