The San Francisco 49ers are implementing a new defense under first-time defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and the hope as always is that it will play to the strengths of the talent. Players need to be able to adapt to aspects of a scheme, but ideally you find a scheme that fits the strengths of your personnel. It’s obvious, and yet somehow we’ve seen coaches over the years who can’t seem to figure that out.
The 49ers are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense under Saleh. The base defense is not used nearly as much as sub-packages, but it does mean some adjustments in the roles of defensive linemen and linebackers. We’ve heard plenty of talk about the notion of using a Seattle Seahawks style defense, but as Saleh has said, it will be the 49ers version of it. Saleh got a significant defensive education during his three years as the Seahawks defensive quality control coach, and he built on that while serving as linebackers coach for former Seahawks DC Gus Bradley when the two of them were in Jacksonville.
There are a host of intriguing options for any defense, and recently Bleacher Report’s Doug Farrar took a look at the ten best defensive schemes around the NFL. At No. 3, he listed the Seahawks deep-safety defense. He offered up a basic breakdown of what Pete Carroll did when he became the Seahawks head coach.
[Carroll] went back to the future, designing his base defense to look like something out of the 1970s or early '80s: a four-man front with aggressive pass-rushers, a linebacker group versatile enough to stack against the run or drop into coverage, a strong safety to patrol the intermediate areas, a free safety with the speed and acumen to cover the entire deep third of the passing zone and cornerbacks who were tall and physically gifted enough to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage as well as trail them through deep routes.
The 49ers defensive players have all talked about the simplified approach they are seeing with this defense. In the past there has been more read and react, but under Saleh, the 49ers will seemingly get a chance to get out there and be more aggressive at the snap.
John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan invested heavily in the defense this offseason. DL Solomon Thomas and LB Reuben Foster were the team’s top two picks, and they will join additions like LB Malcolm Smith, DT Earl Mitchell, and pass rusher Elvis Dumervil. The 49ers combination of youth and veteran talent will provide them with a chance to build a competitive group this year, while getting ready for the long haul.
Smith in particular could be an intriguing signing if the chips fall right. The price seems high, and the 49ers seem to have a ready replacement in Reuben Foster, but in the shot term, Smith could be a valuable piece of the puzzle. Over at Niners Wire, Jerod Brown put together some thoughts on why the Smith signing could make sense. I’m not entirely convinced a switch to a more familiar defense will turn him into a hugely productive linebacker, but I also can see how he makes sense at this early stage of the rebuilding process.
Thomas is a guy the 49ers will be relying on to develop into a significant cog in the defense. He joins DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead competing for work all across the line. Buckner will likely play mostly inside, while Armstead is competing for the LEO role. Armstead will also likely move inside in passing situations. Like Armstead, Thomas is a guy who will get work both inside and outside. Farrar talked about Carroll’s increased use of nickel packages, and had this to say about the Seahawks options:
The Seahawks have used Carroll’s nickel package more and more in recent years. Under former defensive coordinator and current Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, Seattle would pin both Avril and Bennett to one side of the formation, making life very difficult for the offensive linemen on that side. Bennett has become one of the better multi-position defensive linemen in the NFL, playing about half of his snaps inside at tackle and disrupting from any gap.
Thomas is the guy the 49ers likely are hoping can develop into that versatile Bennett type of role. He has similar size to Bennett, and will likely get similar rotation. He’s a long way from turning into Bennett, but Thomas is going to get that opportunity. We’ll see plenty of rotation, with Ronald Blair, Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, and others potentially working into the mix. Buckner and Armstead are further ahead in development than Thomas, and will be relied upon heavily. However, given the 49ers significant investment in Thomas as the first draft pick of the new regime, all eyes will be on him in this new-look defense.
Things get particularly interesting as the 49ers turn over the back end of their defense. Last year’s starting five were cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward, nickel back Rashard Robinson/Keith Reaser/Chris Davis, free safety Eric Reid, and strong safety Antoine Bethea. This year, Ward has moved to free safety, Reid to strong safety, Robinson to one starting corner role, and Reaser is competing with Dontae Johnson and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon for the other starting role. K’Waun Williams and Will Redmond are the likely front-runners for the nickel role.
In an ideal world, Robinson and Witherspoon emerge as the starting cornerbacks. They have the length that works in the Seahawks aggressive defense. While Robert Saleh will implement a variety of wrinkles, he’ll be looking for that physicality from the cornerbacks.
And of course, the biggest question of this group might be how Jimmie Ward adapts to that deep safety role. Furthermore, given some of his injuries and the lack of a veteran behind him, much talked about UDFA Lorenzo Jerome stands an excellent chance of claiming a roster spot.
The 49ers defense should be able to take a step forward in 2017. They’ve invested quite a bit on that side of the ball. Most eyes on the coaching staff are focused on Kyle Shanahan, and yet, Robert Saleh will be the guy who could have the most to gain or lose from this coming season. The 49ers were delayed in making their coaching hires due to Kyle Shanahan participating in the Super Bowl. Shanahan has plenty of job security for now, but how much job security does Saleh have?
If the defense shows improvement in this new look, that would certainly bode well for his long-term future. But if they struggle, it will be interesting to see how long he gets before Shanahan looks for a potentially more veteran defensive coordinator. The team invested a lot on that side of the ball, so the rookie coordinator faces a decent amount of pressure coming out of the gate.