The San Francisco 49ers made big changes this offseason, which makes some of the traditional national media analysis a little more difficult. When you bring in a new general manager and coaching staff, and are in the midst of a huge roster overhaul, things are changing on virtually every front. The team is switching to a 4-3 and getting more aggressive in all phases of the defense. They’re making a stronger switch to a new blocking and rushing scheme. And of course, they have a new group of quarterbacks.
ESPN and Football Outsiders recently put together a look at the sneaky strength of each team’s offense and defense. FO uses their statistical database to see what stands out for each team, no matter how bad they are. The 49ers are making some big changes, but here’s what stood out on offense and defense last year.
Offense: Running on first downs
Although the 49ers' offense was poor overall, the running backs did a good job of putting the quarterbacks in position to succeed on second and third down. The 49ers ranked third in DVOA when running the ball on first down, with their running backs averaging 4.82 yards per carry (sixth in the league).
Defense: First-quarter defense
Finding particularly good splits for San Francisco's defense last year is extremely difficult, but it did at least manage to start games strong, ranking 10th in DVOA in the first quarter.
The 49ers struggled to adjust on both sides of the ball. They would find early success, and then things would fall apart in short order.
The bigger question though is what sneaky strengths around the NFL might mean for the 49ers in 2017. Kyle Shanahan is taking over the offense, while Robert Saleh is taking over the defense. On offense, here was the Falcons sneaky strength
One of the quiet secrets to Atlanta's offensive explosion last year: The Falcons had just 10 dropped passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Only Tennessee (nine) had fewer. It was a major difference from 2015, when the Falcons ranked among the worst in the league with 30 drops.
Per Pro Football Focus, Pierre Garçon was among the league leaders in catch rate, and Colin Kaepernick’s wide receivers were among the league leaders in most dropped passes. The 49ers offense had enough struggles and drops only made it worse. The Falcons wide receivers were coached by position coach Raheem Morris and offensive assistant Mike LaFleur. This year, LaFleur has joined Kyle Shanahan’s coaching staff as wide receivers coach and passing game specialist. We don’t hear much from the position coaches, but the receivers will be something to track considering it’s an almost entirely new group working with a new quarterback.
On the defensive side of the ball, I thought it made sense to look at the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, and Seattle Seahawks. The first two have worked to implement some version of the Seahawks style of defense. Saleh was the linebackers coach in Jacksonville and has indicated the team will implement his own version of that defense.
Defense: Preventing long runs
One of the secrets to Seattle's run defense is strong tackling in the secondary, even if runners get past the first and second levels. The Seahawks ranked third in fewest open-field yards per carry, defined as gains that come more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.
The 49ers struggled stopping just about any kind of run, and particularly long runs, where they ranked dead last. Given the 49ers struggles along the front seven, it is not entirely surprising the defense was worn down dealing with runs to their level. A beefed up front seven will hopefully help improve this.
Jacksonville's young defense has improved its tackling significantly. In 2015, the Jaguars allowed 122 broken tackles and ranked 26th in broken-tackle rate. In 2016, they tied the Packers with a league-low 79 broken tackles, and ranked second in broken-tackle rate behind Denver.
The 49ers have an almost entirely new defensive coaching staff, with Jason Tarver the only notable holdover. I have no idea what this will mean for the team’s tackling, but Saleh will have plenty of say about tackling form in the new-look defense.
Defense: Dime defense
Atlanta excelled when it had to put six defensive backs on the field. The Falcons allowed just 5.3 yards per play, and their minus-12.7 percent DVOA while playing dime defense ranked second overall among the 15 teams that used a dime defense on at least 10 percent of plays. (Denver was No. 1.)
The 49ers have a lot to figure out for their sub-packages. The dime defense includes a sixth defensive back, but sometimes you see a lot of variations of the front five. It traditionally includes four defensive linemen and a linebacker, but teams can mix up who they use as the defensive ends.
San Francisco spent their two first round picks on the defensive front. The 49ers dime could see a rotation of NaVorro Bowman and Reuben Foster at the linebacker role. Solomon Thomas could join DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead on the defensive front, but that front four could also mix in Ahmad Brooks, Tank Carradine, Eli Harold, Aaron Lynch, Ronald Blair, Pita Taumoepenu if he makes the roster, and others. The team will have some rotational options.
In considering the defensive backs, we know Rashard Robinson will be one of the starting cornerbacks, Jimmie Ward will be the free safety, and Eric Reid will be the strong safety. Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson, and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon will be competing for the second cornerback position. K’Waun Williams and Will Redmond are competing at nickel back. When the 49ers go with a sixth defensive back, I would expect a package featuring Jaquiski Tartt, but then another package that is more cornerback focused.
We won’t see a single dime look, but rather, a host of rotation within the group. We’ll see how effective it is in the new defensive scheme.