The San Francisco 49ers defense has performed on opposite ends of the spectrum this season. Some of it, of course, is based on the competition, their talent level, and scheme. Most of the time however, the only thing stopping our defense, is our defense. At times the defensive front is solid, team are unable to run wide or run inside. The secondary performs well and prevents teams from completions and touchdowns. Other times however, gaps are missed and simple runs go for big gains, and too often in the secondary assignments are blown and players are left wide open.
What’s the reason for this inconsistent performance? Is Robert Saleh giving the players too much to execute? Initially the defense was drawn up simple and basic, allowing players to simply react and not have to consider options and assignments. Then the defense evolved into something more complex as teams caught up with the bland cover 3 high scheme. Now it seems the players are thinking too much, blowing assignments and being put in positions difficult to succeed. Can we totally blame to coordinator when neither simple, nor complex works?
Against the New York Giants on Monday night, both sides of our defense were on display. We saw a team that held one of the games most explosive running backs to 3.3 yards a carry and only 33 total yards receiving. They kept Odell Beckham Jr. relatively in check — he only caught 4 passes on 11 targets. The Giants averaged five yards per play. On the other hand, they gave up two touchdown passes to OBJ, one where he was simply left wide open in the back of the end zone, and the other where the covering defender was more focused on who was helping him than actually defending the play. Also of Saquon Barkley’s 33 total yards receiving, 23 yards came on one play, which put the Giants in scoring position to win the game. On that play, he was doubled, yet somehow both defenders ran outside as Barkley ran inside. It was a comedy of errors. Let’s get to the film.
We start with good defense. The Giants knew their offensive line couldn’t consistently compete with our front so they did several things to compensate. The moved the pocket, ran short routes, and used play action to slow the pass rush. For the most part it was effective, only giving up one sack on the night. We won was when we forced Eli Manning into his second or third read. When that happened, we either ended up with a sack, or incompletions. Our first clip shows us a few things. One solid coverage, and two Deforest Buckner simply out-muscling a double team, which he drew most of the night. As the tape stops Eli sees no one open, he continues to scan across, before he can finish his reads and Bucker and Dekoda Watson meet him in the backfield.
Another good defense clip. Initially Eli wants to go to OBJ on the quick out. The 49ers however call the right coverage, Cover 2 zone. This puts the corner in the short flat right where OBJ runs, and he’s not open. At the last minute Eli tries to dump the ball off to Barkley as Cassius Marsh bears down on him. Marsh runs free after an effective stunt, and he’s unblocked. Fred Warner is in perfection position and forces the tip up on the pass which was intercepted by K’Waun Williams, but the referees saw things differently.
More good defense. Here we see Saleh employ a zone blitz concept hoping to confuse the blockers and spring someone free. It doesn’t work but the coverage behind the blitz is solid so no one is open anyways. The pass Eli was attempting would’ve been for a short gain. Warner calls out the crossing receiver and Marsh follows suit in coverage. The result of this play is a pass that’s batted down at the line by Buckner. I wonder how we don’t have more of these employing several defensive lineman who stand taller than 6’3.
Good defense doesn’t always lead to a stop or a sack. Sometimes defensively you lose the battle but are still in good position to win the war. While the completion to OBJ in this clip was a big one, there’s no one really to blame. The Giants fake the run and roll Eli far out of harms way. They did this a lot to negate our pass rush. It’s totally plausible to say Solomon Thomas crashed too far inside which opened up the naked boot, but he does a good job of recovering with a spin to the outside. Richard Sherman, who’s responsible for the deep third in this cover 3 call, has to keep OBJ in front of him. While this allows for an easy completion on the out route, it’s a bend but don’t break concept. Defensively no one is considered “out of position.”
Let’s get into some bad defense. One player in particular who struggled was Malcolm Smith. Against Oakland, I praised his ability to cover and tackle. Against the Giants, he was often lost and out of position. When looking at defensive film, its hard sometimes to know the exact play call and assignment. One thing that’s easy to pick up on however, is body language. A player seen spinning around, or sprinting and suddenly stopping, shows signs of confusion. In today’s NFL, a second of confusion is the difference between a stop and a touchdown. This is what I saw from Smith. For example in our first clip, I’m not sure his assignment. Initially he reads the back field, then he sprints into what I thought would be the short flat/curl zone, but he’s far to deep like he’s covering the seam route. Then he spins and looks inside expecting a crossing route when there isn’t one. He just doesn’t seem sure of what to do.
Our next clip shows Smith blowing a coverage on a tight end wheel route. The giants do a good job of setting this one up. All week I’m sure in the defensive meetings the focus was “stop Barkley.” I even did an entire piece on his usage by the Giants in the passing game. The Giants played to this focus by using tight end Evan Engram. Watch Engram’s route, he doesn’t just run right up the field, as he approaches the defender, Antone Exum, he shuffles his feet, positions himself like he’s about to block for a screen, he then breaks outside up the sideline. Smith read this and immediately broke for Barkley. Problem is, Exum was already in position to cover Barkley, and no one covered Engram.
Fred Warner was not void of mistakes either. Often times when attacking zone coverage offenses will run defenders through zones to see if teams will consistently pass players off, waiting to see if someone slips up and follows. This would leave an open zone. OBJ runs a deep cross, Sherman passes him off across the field, as he’s covering the deep third on his side. Problem is no one is across the field to pick him up. I’m not entirely sure who’s out of position. I could say Warner bit too hard on the play action, which prevented him from turning and running with OBJ. I’ve seen Reuben Foster pick up crossing routes like this. It’s possibly Mark Nzeocha, the SAM linebacker ventured too far into the flat which left open field behind him. It’s also possible that Ahkello Witherspoon should’ve passed off his receiver to Jimmie Ward who was already in deep coverage, and fall off into the open area where OBJ was. No one did any of the sort and it’s a wide open completion. Looking at body language Warner shows signs of confusion and being out of position.
On this next example of bad defense, Barkley runs a simple flat route off of a play action fake. The added layers to this play includes the wide receiver Sterling Shepard motioning in for a tight split, and Eli doing a reverse pivot once the ball is snapped. Both of these things cause Marsh, who’s in coverage, to lean more and more inside. The offensive line pushes left as if the run is going that way. Shepard runs right at Marsh creating somewhat of a pick to keep him inside. By the time Marsh realizes it’s a fake, he’s several yards out of position.
There you have it, good defense versus bad. Initially I wondered during the game where did our dominant defensive line go? By the end of my film session I saw the problem. It’s a unit failure. No pass rush, no matter how dominant still needs help. When a quarterback’s first read is open on a three stop drop. No pass rush can overcome that. When the secondary leaves players uncovered and wide open, not even your prized Nick Bosa can overcome that. On the other hand, when Buckner is doubled teamed every game, and no one else can even sniff the QB, that’s a problem. When we’re forced to blitz two sometimes three defenders, it indicates our lack of talented defensive lineman.
That’s all from the player angle. Coaching-wise, Julian Taylor dominated in the preseason but has yet to even dress this season. Sheldon Day, and D.J. Jones are great players, yet they’ve garnered half the snap counts of Earl Mitchell and Solomon Thomas, who have under-performed to say the least. That, my friends, is the conundrum. There’s successes and failures at every level, from players, to coaches, to front office. Until we can gain some consistency from every facet of the defensive unit, we will continue to see inconsistent defensive performances. Go Niners!