The San Francisco 49ers have invested a TON in their defensive front — not just four first round picks in the last four years (including Reuben Foster if you could linebackers), but even adding a separate pass rush coach (Chris Kiffin) specifically to help with the anemic results.
Before Monday night, they still didn’t have much to show for it this season. After six games, San Francisco is tied for 21st in the league for forced fumbles (4), and 22nd in the league in sacks, with 12.
But three of those sacks came against Green Bay, which has one of the league’s best QBs and (per Geoff Schwartz) a top-six offensive line. Though he managed his usual late-game heroics, Rodgers was harried all night, with his lowest completion percentage of the year (54.3%, making just 25 of 46 passes) against a secondary that is, shall we say, not excellent.
Watching the game tape, the improvement wasn’t so much a fiercer rush, as a more unpredictable attack. Whoever called the defensive plays — Robert Saleh or Chris Kiffin — they kept the Pack off-balance and guessing all night. Sacks are great, but to be honest, I’m more impressed by a set of downs where you can stymie the offense three times in a row.
The fun started in the middle of the first quarter, with Green Bay on the Niners’ 12 yard line, first and ten. Running back Aaron Jones was stuffed for a one yard gain. On 2nd and 9, Green Bay seemed to expect a blitz, as Rodgers was looking for the quick screen to Marquez Valdes-Scantling the whole way. The Niners only rushed four, but Ronald Blair was pushing past LT David Bakhtiari’s right (inside) shoulder as Rodgers hurriedly dumped it off, and the ball fell to the turf because Valdez-Scantling hadn’t even turned his head.
On 3rd and 9, when you might have expected them to fall back and cover all the receivers, the Niners rushed seven and safety Adrian Colbert had a running head start straight through the A-gap, untouched. (above) Rodgers barely got the pass off and it fell incomplete, just before Colbert laid hands on him (in a gentle, non-penalty-drawing-even-in-2018 way). The Niners won that chess match and held Green Bay to a field goal.
That was not the only good series, by any stretch. At the start of the second quarter, the Packers gained two quick first downs for a first and ten at the SF 39. Tight end Jimmy Graham was lined up inline right, with LB Malcom Smith covering him to the outside. Or so it seemed. But at the snap, Smith sidestepped the TE and rookie LB Fred Warner glommed on to him, while Smith ran right at the QB untouched (photo below, with Warner and Graham circled in red). Rodgers, with no open receivers, threw it away and was called for intentional grounding.
Now it was 2nd and 24, back at the Green Bay 47. Before the snap, GB RB Ty Montgomery motioned out wide left, leaving Rodgers in empty, a natural formation for a big passing down. Warner and LB Reuben Foster, with less than two years of NFL experience between them, faced each other and gestured wildly to communicate their response to this last second change, but they apparently figured it out and turned back toward Rodgers just before the snap.
Montgomery motioned back inside a bit, to the numbers, and ran an inside slant, catching a pass two yards downfield, with five Niners already surrounding him like a drum circle. Within two seconds, four more white jerseys joined the thumping fun, and he ended up with five yards total.
Now it was 3rd and 19. Big rush, or drop back into coverage? SF sent only four, but Sheldon Day and Ronald Blair III ran a guard-tackle stunt on the offense’s left side. Day was left unblocked, so Rodgers dropped it off abruptly to Davante Adams, just 2-3 yards downfield, running horizontally mid-field with Niners all around. He was lucky to pick up 7 yards with YAC, leaving his squad in punt formation at 4th and 12.
This strong play continued in the second half. At 5:17 of the third period, the Packers were set up at their own 41 after a first down. Montgomery was smothered on an end around, leaving them at 2nd and 8. San Francisco lined up in a 7-3-1 formation, with Richard Sherman and Jimmie Ward as bookends up on the line. Those DBs dropped back into coverage, not surprisingly, but Saleh hasn’t been shy about dropping linemen into coverage and blitzing CBs, so Green Bay couldn’t be sure.
The Packers line pulled left while Rodgers ran a naked bootleg right. Bad idea. Malcolm Smith raced around the (offense’s) right side unchecked, while DeForest Buckner knifed between OG Lucas Patrick and T Byron Bell, who was not remotely fast enough to get to him. TE Lance Kendricks ran across the pocket in a desperate attempt to impede Smith even as Rodgers curled right into him.
Just two seconds into the play, Rodgers was on the ground and the two Niners’ biggest problem was not colliding. Smith had to hurdle Buckner to avoid getting trucked by the huge lineman. Now it was 3rd and 17. SF dropped into prevent coverage and stopped a short crosser well short of a first down.
Maybe the most impressive series of the game came in crunch time, with 5:33 left in the 4th. The Pack, down by seven, started at their own 48. Solomon Thomas came free on first down, and Jimmie Ward was sitting on top of the screen pass. For once, the 49ers tackled well, and it was a 3 yard loss.
On second down, SF brought five and covered well downfield. Even with six Packers in pass protection, the pocket collapsed quickly and Rodgers threw safely into the dirt, 3rd and 13.
On what could have been the game’s deciding play — if SF had made a first down on the following series — Ronald Blair III bull-rushed Bakhtiari, one of the game’s best left tackles, who outweighs him by 40 pounds. Blair pushed the 2nd-team All Pro back several yards, reached around him and pulled Rodgers down.
Obviously this game didn’t turn out the way the Niners wanted, and it would have been great to get a sack later in the game on one of Aaron Rodgers’ key comeback drives. But this performance by the DL was very encouraging for several reasons. It felt systematic, not just a couple of missed blocking assignments, but a full-game harassment of a good offensive line and an elite QB.
Saleh also got strong performances out of some quieter players, Malcolm Smith and Ronald Blair III and Sheldon Day, which is crucial. As great as Buckner is, coordinators can scheme around one disruptive player. But a disruptive guy surrounded by 4 or five dangerous ones, that’s tough.
The defensive line needs to get more consistent and make more plays (especially strip sacks). A better performance by the secondary would help both, a lot. A lot of people have written off this season and are hoping to draft an edge rusher like Nick Bosa in the first round next year. That would be great, but Monday night, this team showed that they can make some noise with the players they have right now.