Throughout the offseason, though we have heard that the 49ers are running the Seattle style defense, they will have some of their own kinks and variations. These are some possibilities.
Specialist pass rushers
Whilst most teams who operate this scheme tend to have one guy who comes off the bench to rush the passer off the edge on later downs, or alternatively shift their SAM linebacker to defensive end, the 49ers are unlikely to do these things.
Instead they look like they might have a stable of specialist pass rushers to summon from the bench in passing situations to wreak havoc on opposition passing offenses and plague the dreams of opposition quarterbacks.
Though it is unlikely that all of Elvis Dumervil, Aaron Lynch, Tank Carradine and Pita Taumoepenu make the final roster, at least two of them could rise from the bench on second and long and third downs to rush the passer as Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner split time inside.
A number one corner who tracks the opposition’s best receiver both inside and outside (and a number three corner with the versatility to play the slot and the boundary)
Atlanta does this with Desmond Trufant, and the 49ers can do this with Rashard Robinson. Robinson is a tremendous man cover corner (in addition to being a highly effective zone corner) and has the ability to follow the opposition’s best receiver all over the field, both inside and outside.
In recent years, this scheme has seen teams increasingly utilizing cover 1 man looks to supplement the cover 3 zone looks. Robinson’s versatile man coverage skills mean that the 49ers can utilize cover 1 man and not worry about the opposition’s best receiver moving inside and going up against their third best corner.
If the 49ers do use Robinson in this way, it will affect the race to be the number three corner. K’waun Williams is more of a pure slot corner, ill-suited to life on the outside. Contrastingly, Keith Reaser and especially Will Redmond appear equally well suited to life inside and outside in the 49ers’ scheme. Redmond is an adept press-man corner and can also play zone to a good level. If we imagine that Ahkello Witherspoon becomes the number two corner and stays outside, Robinson and Redmond would play both inside and outside depending on where the opposition’s best receiver lines up.
Regular three safety looks
Fears about NaVorro Bowman’s coverage abilities coming off his Achilles injury have been widespread, though potentially a little premature at this point. Even if fears about Bowman prove to be wrong, there should still be concerns about the effectiveness of the other top linebackers on the roster. Though he is supposedly at “home” in this scheme, Malcolm Smith has yet to prove that he is consistently good in coverage in the NFL and Reuben Foster, as stratospheric as his potential may be, is a rookie and he will have to adjust to the NFL level. Even the best coverage linebackers tend to take at least a year to adjust.
The 49ers can alleviate doubts about their coverage over the oft-exploited middle of the field by utilizing three safety looks. Even in “base” packages, Jaquiski Tartt (if he fails to beat out Eric Reid as a strong safety) could play the WILL linebacker role. This will help the 49ers cover slot receivers, tight ends and running backs more effectively and have just one of Bowman, Foster and Smith on the field in some situations. Would this make the 49ers soft against the run however? Probably not, for two reasons.
Firstly, Tartt himself is a solid run defender when operating in the box, is almost as big as Foster and is faster. If the scheme works correctly, the WILL ‘backer should be able to flow to the ball-carrier largely unblocked, reducing whatever size worries might have remained and accentuating Tartt’s speed. Watching film from his first two seasons, he regularly penetrates into the backfield when playing close to the LOS and playing WILL would allow him to do this.
Furthermore, the 49ers are going to have a physically enormous defensive line, that is no longer going to be playing read and react football that placed two of its number at a distinct disadvantage. If the presence of Arik Armstead (enormous for a LEO) and DeForest Buckner on the weak side of the formation (in under looks) doesn’t help to keep the WILL linebacker largely clean when flowing to the ball then something is going badly wrong. When you consider that the Niners will have Earl Mitchell and Solomon Thomas at the other end, probably with Ahmad Brooks outside them, you can really appreciate the hulking qualities of the 49ers’ defensive line. As such, the team can afford to have slightly-smaller-than-prototypical WILL linebacker. Tartt (or Reid if Tartt surprises and winds up starting at strong safety) at WILL on occasion makes a lot of sense.
If you have any thoughts and alternative possibilities, get active below in the comments.