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49ers preseason defensive review: Eli Harold is looking like something for the linebackers

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

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.

On Wednesday, I took a look at some general observations related to formations and philosophies, and then observations about the 49ers defensive line. Today, I am moving on to the linebackers.

  • There appears to be a legitimate competition for the starting SAM linebacker spot. Eli Harold has come on strong as a rusher over the last few weeks and he was already a better run defender than Brooks. The latter point alone probably makes him a better option to start as the SAM, but if he is also a better nickel pass rusher than Brooks, the 49ers may start considering Brooks’ position on the team. They will likely retain both players however, in order to be able to rotate them.
  • Harold is the closest thing the team has to a genuine LEO style edge bender, closely followed by Aaron Lynch. Brooks also clearly retains much of his explosiveness.
  • Reuben Foster and NaVorro Bowman (injury permitting) look likely to start the season together at linebacker, forming a formidable starting tandem. Bowman will play the MIKE and Foster the WILL. They have both looked good against the run.
  • Both players look like they are moving well, Foster in particular. When they are playing the middle of the field in zone coverage their movements almost mirror each other, with Bowman moving slightly earlier and Foster moving slightly quicker. The 49ers have allowed few completions over the middle when the two are paired together. Most significantly, the 49ers have allowed few completions up the vulnerable seams. These areas are the responsibility of the centre field free safety primarily, but the linebackers/strong safety also have a major role to play in redirecting receivers and forcing the quarterback to put more air on throws into these areas by dropping deeper. This gives the free safety a better chance to play the ball. The 49ers’ starting linebackers have shown the movement skills to drop deeper and still be able to come forward and make plays on throws in front of them.
  • It is no coincidence that the biggest play up the same came when the 49ers had their backups on the field. Ray-Ray Armstrong and Vinnie Sunseri (playing strong safety) allowed a receiver a free release up the seam, allowing the quarterback to fire a bullet between them for a chunk play.
  • Armstrong has generally looked pretty good in coverage though, whilst Brock Coyle has struggled a little. Coyle in particular lacks the movement skills of his peers - particularly laterally and first step explosiveness. Against the run, both players have been guilty of missed assignments but generally seem have been in the right place at the right time. They are a clear step down on the starters however and the 49ers will be hoping that Bowman and Foster can stay healthy.
  • The third stringers have shown exactly why they are there, with missed tackles and struggles in coverage. Probably the most obvious difference with them and the players ahead of them is their movement and awareness. Awareness is unsurprising, as they have been signed to the team due to injuries to Malcolm Smith and Donavin Newsom.