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Notes and observations on the 49ers defensive line halfway through the preseason

The 49ers are halfway through the preseason. Let’s take a look at where the defense stands.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back for a second look at the San Francisco 49ers’ defense through two preseason games. There were a lot of question marks given the change in personnel and scheme. Halfway through the preseason, we are seeing some intriguing fallout from all the changes.

Earlier today, I took a look at some general observations related to formations and philosophies. In this one, I wanted to offer up observations about the 49ers defensive line.

  • Against the run, the 49ers’ defensive line has generally shown up well. They appear to understand their assignments most importantly and have been able to generate some solid plays against the run so far.
  • Nose tackle Earl Mitchell and strong side end Tank Carradine have particularly stood out in this respect. Both players have demonstrated their strength, explosiveness and movement skills against the run, to either penetrate into the backfield or stop runs for short gains. A notable play this weekend came when Carradine held off an advancing guard with one arm whilst preparing to tackle a Broncos runner.
  • Both players have also shown an effectiveness in the passing game. Robert Saleh’s early prediction that Carradine could be highly effective on the strong side edge is coming true, as he appears capable of winning outside, inside and straight through whoever is tasked with blocking him. Nonetheless, his two most obvious wins came against a tight end and what looked like a miscommunication, so it’s worth pumping the brakes on the Carradine hype a little.
  • Arik Armstead has been fairly quiet. This isn't hugely surprising given most run plays go away from him and he’s had a limited number of snaps as a pass rusher. He was unlikely to become a Cliff Avril-esque edge bender as a LEO, and he doesn't look like becoming one but his hand usage has flashed on occasion and his bull rush remains an incredibly dangerous weapon, arguably even more so now he has a wider array of potential moves available to him. This week will be an excellent chance to get a better look at what he offers.
  • We have seen the 49ers attempt to loop pass rushers into the space behind Armstead’s bull rush, a policy that could work well as the season goes on.
  • DeForest Buckner has barely played after sustaining an injury early against the Chiefs, but he too flashed disruptive ability along the interior.
  • Rookie Solomon Thomas was much better against the Chiefs than against the Broncos. Nevertheless, in both games he showed refined hand usage, solid explosion, good power and impressive versatility as he lined up inside and outside.
  • Aaron Lynch showed he was much better than the Chiefs’ second and third stringers. Can he do the same against starters? He certainly looked more explosive and agile than he looked last season.
  • Backup interior players Chris Jones, Quinton Dial and DJ Jones have been a mixed bag. Dial and DJ Jones have been reasonably impressive, with DJ Jones in particular showing excellent lateral movement skills and a good anchor in the run game. Unsurprisingly, he has also been overpowered on occasion when he has lost leverage, but that’s to be expected from a rookie. Chris Jones has been routinely manhandled in the run and passing games. He has also allowed himself to get undisciplined in his pass rushing lanes, which has let quarterbacks escape from collapsing pockets.
  • This latter problem will have to be watched carefully. When the 49ers are utilising their wide 9 nickel package, they have proven vulnerable to quarterbacks scrambling up the middle. The interior rushers must stay disciplined and be counted on to collapse the pocket vertically.
  • Pita Taumoepenu undoubtedly turned some heads this week, when he got the better of the Broncos backups on a few occasions. If he makes the 53 it will be as pass rush specialist and he has started to show that he is getting used to the level of competition around him after a very quiet opener against the Chiefs.