Despite spending three first round picks on defensive linemen in the last four years, the Niners have had very little pass rush success to show for it. Until Thursday. The 49ers kept Derek Carr and AJ McCarron harassed and harried all game, with eight sacks and ten QB hits.
If you’re thinking, “yeah, but Oakland SUCKS!” well, you’re right. But they are not bad at protecting their passer. In the Raiders first seven games this year, they surrendered just 17 sacks combined, an average of 2.42 sacks per game. That’s less than the league-wide average of 2.58, and in case you’re not good at math, it’s a lot less than eight.
On the flip side, Oakland has only seven sacks on opposing quarterbacks for the whole season. With their outburst against the Raiders, San Francisco is actually tied for seventh in the NFL this season, with 24.
Oakland had nine drives Thursday, and got sacked on all but one of them. Their only sack-less drive (four plays, turned over on downs) didn’t come until the 4th quarter. This was devastating pressure, and it was a huge factor in stifling Oakland’s offense.
The biggest improvement came not from the Niners DL first rounders, but from two journeyman additions — linebacker Dekoda Watson (who returned from injury this game) and defensive end Cassius Marsh. The pair combined for four sacks and six QB hits against Oakland, while the big three only had two sacks between them (one each for DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas).
But that’s not entirely fair. The powerful inside DL collapsing the pocket was a big part of what made sacks from the edge possible. PFF gave Watson and Marsh their highest ratings among the 49ers defense, while Buckner was third.
These were not coverage sacks or blitzes, either, with one exception each. The Niners broke through quickly, and Carr didn’t have time to look downfield. His longest pass of the day was just 25 yards.
Here’s a breakdown of the 8 sacks:
1) 1Q, 11:15. 1st and 10 at the SF 13 yard line
The Niners were playing the run on this play action sweep, but the defense adjusted well to the fake. Solomon Thomas got credit for the cheapest sack of the day, as QB Derek Carr ran out of bounds two yards short of the line of scrimmage, and Thomas was simply the closest of five Niners chasing him. Carr even held his ball-carrying arm forward, hoping to pick up enough territory to erase the statistical sack.
Still, Oakland was poised to score, and this play started a defensive stand that held the Raiders to a field goal. On second and 22 (after a holding penalty), Carr had to throw the ball into the dirt under heavy pressure from the men of the hour, Dekoda Watson and Cassius Marsh. It was ruled an incomplete pass, so the statistical flukes balance out.
2) 1Q, 5:53. 2nd and 1 at the Oakland 37
This five-yard sack ended up stopping an Oakland drive, which seemed pretty unlikely after a nine-yard gain on first down. And this one belonged to the three first round picks, as the Niners rushed just four again. Buckner closed the deal, after plowing through a double team straight up the middle, but Carr was stepping up to avoid Arik Armstead coming around the edge on his left, and Thomas was closing rapidly on his right.
3) 2Q, 8:44. 2nd and 18 at the SF 46
After another holding penalty, SF rushed four again but that was plenty. Coming from Carr’s left, 6’4”, 270-lb. Ronald Blair III pushed big Kolton Miller (6’8, 307) up in the air like a volleyball, while Marsh on the other edge pushed back Ian Silberman (305 lbs) as fast as the former Niner could move, which wasn’t nearly fast enough.
Carr saw the two edge rushers closing rapidly and tried to run forward past them, but Marsh threw Silberman’s butt into Carr’s leg, taking him down.
4) 2Q, 2:05. 3rd and 6 at Oakland’s 48
Four Raiders drives, four sacks without blitzing, four stopped drives. Marsh and Watson came flying in from the edges, basically slamming into each other with Carr in between. That had to hurt.
5) 3Q, 11:49. 2nd and 8 at the Oakland 27
Watson and Marsh again. Watson jumped right up on Kelechi Osemele, faking a move outside then cutting sharply inside right past the guard and wrapping up Carr. Marsh lurked nearby and helped finish. It was all over in a couple of seconds. This left Oakland at 3rd and 12; they gained 8 and punted.
6) 3Q 6:59. 3rd and 5 at the Oakland 42
Frankly, this was not a sack at all; it was a scorekeeper’s mistake. For once the Niners blitzed, bringing six; Fred Warner batted down Carr’s pass, and guard Gabe Jackson fell on the loose ball. Maybe they ruled that Jackson caught Carr’s batted pass for a reception, then fumbled and recovered it?
Whatever, the score was already 31 to 3, and Oakland had just failed in their latest drive. San Francisco wasn’t going to say anything when handed an undeserved six yards of field position, and Jon Gruden had apparently stopped grinding by this point.
7) 4Q, 14:04. 3rd and 9 at the San Francisco 20
Oakland was threatening to score again, and this sack saved three, seven or even eight points. (The field goal attempt that followed doinked off the post.)
Carr dropped back to pass, facing four-man pressure, but the left side of his pocket collapsed, with a lot of blockers and rushers all bunched together. He actually had a lot of room to run to this right, at first, but he dawdled until Arik Armstead came around that way, cutting off his escape.
At that point Carr tried to sprint forward and left but ran into the backs of his own blockers, and the face of Cassius Marsh. Marsh even pried the ball loose and up into the air, though only after the QB was down. This play put the final nail in the coffin for the Raiders’ hopes.
8) 4Q, 2:54. 1st and 10 at the Oakland 48
AJ McCarron was in by this point, a clear sign that Oakland had given up, but the Niners didn’t let up on the pressure. This one was all Ronald Blair III, racing by right tackle Brandon Parker (with a friendly slap on the shoulder) to chase down McCarron.
All in all, this was a dominating game by the pass rushers against an above average pass defense. I think it’s safe to say that if the Niners continue to get at least one sack on every drive, they will continue to win.
Finally, a note on sack celebrations. Cassius Marsh’s swirl kick is impressive — is that capoeira? — but I find myself wanting him to do something different.
I was much more impressed by DeForest Buckner’s, um, “swaggie squats”? At 6’7” and 300 pounds, the disruptive DT shows amazing fluidity and flexibility. I bet he’s great at songs where you go to floor, like “Rock Lobster” and Flo Rida’s “Low.”
Be that as it may, this is the kind of problem you love to have. With any luck, Buckner and Marsh will rack up so many sacks going forward that we’ll all get sick to death of both celebrations.