Yet another fanpost about our defensive front - The possible starting positions

Robert Saleh had a press conference yesterday. Even thought Saleh couldn't tell us a lot about his scheme, and didn't have the opportunity to work with the players yet, he certainly gave us a little hindsight about where the players could line up.

In the secondary, Reid would play in the box while Ward's position is still undetermined. The Will and Mike are interchangeable from a physical skill point of view, the Mike will be the LB with the best communication skills.

However, that's what he said about the Defensive Line that is the most interesting. Here is a few quote I selected from the transcript :

Present day, it’s almost 70-percent nickel and the nickel who doesn’t get talked about as a starter, he’s starting to come up as an individual piece to the puzzle. So when looking at the SAM linebacker and what they’re asked to do on a day-to-day basis, 70-percent of the game their hand will be in the ground.

When you look at [DL] Arik Armstead and [DT] DeForest Buckner, they are very, very unique in the sense that they can play up and down the line however you need them to to work. We’ll find what’s best for them. There is no limitation to what they are capable of. It’s just us trying to piece together the right combination and right position for each of them so they can best be utilized.

Aaron, he’s on the defensive line. We’re going to try to keep his hand in the ground at all times. A couple years ago, when he came out of the draft, we were looking at him as a possible LEO.

Tank is a, he can whip some tight ends. So, if you’re looking at a traditional 4-3 scheme, that six-technique, that’s kind of where we see Tank with the ability to pass rush inside.

With those information, I tried to project the starting line up of some fronts.

1- Base formation

First of all the base formation. The base formation is mainly used against the run. The in-game personnel will depend on the run defense called (contain the run on the inside or spill it outside) more than on the formation itself, which will depend on the opponent itself.

But for the sake of the exercise, let's ignore that.

  • 4-3 under




It's a formation that already have been discussed.

- Wide 6 / SAM / OTTO : Brooks/Harold/Tank

- 5 Tech : Armstead/Dial

- NT : Mitchell/Dial/Jones

- UT : Buckner/Blair

- Leo : Lynch, Harold

  • 4-3 over




To me, starting line up wouldn't change a lot. The only modification would be to make Dial, or Blair at Strong Side DE directly on the OT, and make Armstead play at Leo. The reason for the change of position is that, to me, in a run defense context, the Leo will have more or less the same responsibilities of a 5Tech.

Making Armstead play Leo in a 4-3 over front will also give him space to move since there isn't anybody playing next to him at 3Tech.

  • Double 2's




It's a formation I found on the wiki of the subreddit footballstrategy. They are describing this front as following :

This front is used if the defense wants their two tackles to either 2-gap or they don't want the offense to know which way they're going. Linebackers are often stacked behind the 2-techs. You'll also see a 7-tech (or 6i if that makes more sense to you) or an inside shade on a TE by a DE a lot as well, especially if it is coming from a 4-4 defense. Many 4-4 defenses, regardless of the interior two tackles, will play with a 7-tech.

The particularity of this formation is that it features two 2Tech instead of one 1Tech and one 3Tech. I find it very interesting because from that, the front can switch to a 4-3 over or a 4-3 under.

However, I have some difficulties to find an appropriate line up. I think it will depend on what we are trying to do. If the goal is to disguise our front, we should use the following line up :

- Wide 6 / SAM / OTTO : Brooks/Harold/Tank

- 5 Tech : Buckner/Blair

- DTs : Mitchell/Dial/Jones

- Leo : Armstead/Lynch

The other solution would be to make both Armstead and Buckner play as 2 gap DT, and use other players as DE (Lynch, Dial, Blair etc...).

- Wide 6 / SAM / OTTO : Brooks/Harold/Tank

- 5 Tech : Blair/Dial

- DTs : Armstead/Buckner

- Leo : Lynch/Harold

You might have noticed that I described mostly formations using a 5 men front. That's because I think this is what the coaching staff (and mostly Shanahan) are aiming to use.

2- Subpackage

This is when it's becoming tricky. In sub packages, the goal is to defend against the pass, players from the front 7 are replaced by DBs to cover extra receivers. And the DLine's focus is to get into the backfield to disrupt offensive plays (sack the QB, pressure him to make him miss his throw, force him to throw short for a minimal gain).

As people already said it before here, the front's role will depend on how the coverage scheme is designed. But for the sake of the exercise, let's ignore that part.

I think there is two way to build subpackages, the first is to reduce the base front formation to add extra DBs, the other would be to use new formations whose objective is to put pressure on the QB.

Reducing Base Front

This is an obvious move. Reducing the base fronts described in the first part (usually by removing one Linebacker in order to add an extra DBs) and orienting the front in order to disrupt passing plays.

The changes, despite being minimal, would still impact the line up. For instance, if we remove the SAM/OTTO :

  • 4-3 Under: The 5T (Armstead/Tank) and the NT (Jones/Dial) will be likely to get double teamed, living the UT (Buckner/Blair) and Leo (Lynch/Harold) on a 1-on-1 matchups. Blitzing from this formation on the strong side would, in theory, create an advantage matchups for our players : either the DLinemen are double teamed and no one is blocking the blitzer, or an OL is disengaging to block the Blitzer leaving the DLineman on a 1-on-1 matchup.

The rest of the formation will follow more or less the same logic.

However, the CS can also decide to go with a 5 men front, and remove one of the Will/Mike and leave the SAM/OTTO on the field.

Using New Formation

This will depend on how the coaching staff is evaluating the players. I don't have a lot of thing to say about that because I don't really have the knowledge to be defensive coordinator. I saw a front formation called Split who seems oriented to defend against the pass in a dime formation, and who could be an interesting formation to have in our playbook.




I can see the following line up :

- Wide 6 : Brook/Harold/Tank

- 3Techs : Buckner/Jones/Armstead/Mitchell

- Leo : Lynch/Harold

3- The case of Solomon Thomas

I can't talk about defensive front and projected players without mentioning Solomon Thomas. For most of the people here, he is the #2 BPA of this draft class, and the logic choice at #2 overall. Drafting him isn't a sure thing, but I still want to include him in this post.

To me, the challenge of drafting Thomas is to find a way to line up Armstead, Buckner and Thomas most of the time on the same front.

In base defense, I think that the changes should be minimal. Thomas would play Leo as a run defender, a position similar to what he played in college as a 5Tech.

The difficulties is coming when we will have to switch to nickel and dime formation. The reason is that none of Buckner, Armstead and Thomas can play 1Tech or Leo on passing down. I thought a lot about it, and I found a way to keep all 3 of them on most of the passing down. The Split formation is an example of a formation we could use : it features two 3Techs instead of a 1Tech and a 3Tech, and we could use Armstead's flexibilty to play as a wide 6 from a 3 points stance and making him play against a TE.

This would allow us to use all three of Buckner, Thomas and Armstead against the run, and to defend the pass against "non-spread" formation.


This fanpost is based on what Saleh said during his first press conference about the players, which is not much, and its objective was to project the future starters of the defensive line on a few formations. And since I am not inside the building, this projection can be way off base.

But I think that's something we can expect to see next year. Nickel formations will either feature two 3Techs or make Armstead playing wide 6. Adding Thomas to the mix won't change much things, except the diversity of front we will use.

I am welcoming any criticisms on this post, I don't pretend to be right :)

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.