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3rd down and positive: The 49ers defense improves

Despite a heartbreaking loss the 49ers young defense shows promise

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

Somewhere in the third quarter after our second field goal I felt something. It was the feeling of inevitability. I knew we couldn’t sustain our lead three points at a time. The dynamic offense from the first half was no more, it was only a matter of time before Aaron Rodgers did his thing. However before A-Rod time, the young 49ers defense had his number. He looked surprisingly timid. He hesitated and misfired. We finished the game with three sacks. It would’ve been a key fourth sack but a ticky-tack defensive penalty on Richard Sherman gave the Packers new life when they needed it most.

Stat-wise it was an overall clean game by the 49ers. The 49ers had only two total penalties for 10 yards. Sherman’s penalty came in the last few minutes of the 4th quarter. We held Green Bay to only 21 total rushing yard, and they converted a mere four of 13 third down attempts. As usual, the game came down to a few key plays with the 49ers ending up on the losing end due to turnovers. Once we can as an offense prevent turnovers, and as a defense create more, we will be more likely to see victories.

The film I looked at was solely the 3rd down plays. We will look at the evolution of the 49ers defense, but we will also see how Green Bay adjusted to win at the end. We held Green Bay to a 31 percent conversion rate on third downs, which was a full ten percent less than their season average. The first key was how we played on first and second down. While things were a little shaky in the first quarter, the defense settled down and really locked in. Rodgers spent nearly every third down needing 8 yards or more. This was a key for the defense as Rodgers posts a passer rating of only 76.4 when needing that yardage in 2018. Under 8 yards to gain on 3rd downs and his passer rating jumps to 134.4, per ESPN.

Our first clip shows what happens on 3rd and long. It’s 3rd and 19 and you can see how easy this defense is. Sit back deep, let them throw underneath, attack the ball and tackle.

Speaking of tackle, the tackling was much improved this game. Here’s another clip from 3rd and long. I focused on Adrian Colbert because he’s a bit of an enigma. I feel like as a free safety he’s the better tackler compared to rookie D.J. Reed. Reed does better in coverage, however. Watch Colbert diagnose the play, approach the ball carrier, break down, and wrap. It’s textbook football.

Not only are our players developing but our staff, specifically Robert Saleh, is evolving as well. The scheme he came in with was standard cover 3. It rarely changed. It worked in Seattle and Jacksonville because their corners were top notch and could watch the plays develop. Both teams had a stellar pass rushers, so the secondary basically only had to cover quick slants, outs, and hooks. Opposing quarterbacks just didn’t have time to wait on long routes to develop. However, that scheme failed in San Francisco — mostly due to lack of pass rush, and because outside of Richard Sherman, our secondary is a bit of a crap shoot. They go from Oh yea! on one play, to Oh No! the very next one. I like however how Saleh is now mixing up the plays and looks.

In this next clip, the team fakes a cover 3 zone look. I knew something was up when Foster motioned out with the back. That usually only happens in man and should’ve been a dead give away. As the ball is snapped, the team shifts into a cover 2 man defense. The two high safeties keep everything in front of them, while the rest of the secondary plays man to man. Foster is actually beat pretty bad on the play, but Rodgers focus is on the deep wide receivers. He’s thinking cover 3 the seam should be open, but the cover 2 change throws that plan off. With the excellent coverage, Sheldon Day has time to loop around and reach Rodgers for the sack. On 3rd and 10 it’s a great play to prevent the 1st down.

Lets look at another clip of defensive evolution. This time Colbert is all the way down at the line of scrimmage showing blitz. Again, just before the snap he backs off into a Cover 2 look. This time it’s a cover 2 cloud zone. Rodgers scans the field and rushes the throw into the dirt. Looks like he was expecting Jimmy Graham to run a slant, but Graham keeps running up the seam. Again usually the seam would be open in a Cover 3 look but Graham doesn't appear to be on the same page as Rodgers here. The throw was rushed because of DeForest Buckner. He literally beats three offensive players and manages to get into Rodger’s face. I’m liking all the line stunts and loops. The Packers offensive line struggled to hand off defenders all game.

Red zone defense showed some flashes as well. Saleh consistently brought pressure and continued to mix up the coverages. In this clip he calls a zero blitz. Zero meaning everyone except the players covering man to man blitz. Colbert barrels down the middle of the field unblocked and forces Rodgers to throw early. Yes, Jimmie Ward was a force and covered Devante Adams well consistently. It’s bizaro world.

The 49ers also finally figured out the zone blitz. Basically where a defensive lineman drops into coverage, and someone from the secondary or linebacker corps rushes in their place. In the Chargers game, we saw it fail, Solomon Thomas was left in man to man covering an all pro tight end. In Kansas City, Sheldon Day, a 300-pound defensive tackle, was plodding around the red zone trying to run with speedy slot receivers. It was bad.

However, they’ve learned and grown. Instead of a defensive tackle in coverage, the team uses Ronald Blair, a fairly mobile lineman for his size. Also they go with zone instead of man. He just sits in the window where short crosses would happen, ready to tee off. Jaquiski Tartt and Fred Warner blitz at the snap. Reuben Foster fakes the drop, and then blitzes as well. I saw this wrinkle work against us for a sack in the Detroit Lions game. They say it’s a copy cat league, and it’s a great move.

The play isn’t perfect however, I’m not even really sure what area Colbert is supposed to be covering. He runs up into the same zone as Blair, then runs back, hesitates, and then spins around. He’s totally lost. Thankfully Rodgers has to rush the throw to Adams, who’s covered well by Ward (I’m shocked just as much as you) — otherwise the slot at the top of the screen was open for a first down, maybe more. I highlighted that WR when the tape stops.

All great teams adjusts. While Green Bay isn’t a great team, Rodgers is a great QB and he promptly adjusted to the 49ers defensive scheme in the 4th quarter when they needed it most. Our next clip is the tying TD to Adams. As we’ve had success with all game, we run a blitz from a cover 2 look. However, Green Bay’s fix to this is running a deep slot WR. This prevents the deep safety from getting over to help on the outside. He has to play the deep middle because that’s the gap in a cover 2 scheme, the deep middle. That leaves Greg Mabin one on one on the outside. He’s actually not out of position, but as they say, there’s no coverage for a perfect throw. Once Ward went down with an injury (go figure), the Packers picked on Mabin no matter where on the field he lined up.

Our next clip comes with 15 seconds left and Green Bay is driving for a winning field goal. Once again, they look for Mabin. They run a slot WR at the deep cover 2 safety to prevent him from helping on the outside. Now on this play I can fault Mabin. He gets pushed too far inside as he turns and runs leaving the back shoulder wide open. It’s still a difficult throw and catch, but he didn’t do anything to help the situation. He’s still go some room to grow as a corner.

We face the Los Angeles Rams this weekend and I look forward to seeing how this team continues to grow. In some phases of the game we have the advantage. If we could limit the turnovers and keep Todd Gurley under 100 yards, we could win this one in a slug-fest. Go Niners!