The saying goes, “Defense wins championships.” Even in today’s run-and-shoot style NFL those teams that can make splash plays defensively have the best shot at victory. Last year’s Philadelphia Eagles team gave up 500 yards to Tom Brady, but came up with a key strip sack when the game was on the line. The year prior, the New England Patriots defense was able to subdue the high-powered attack of the Atlanta Falcons to complete one of the most memorable come backs in Super Bowl history. The list goes on and on.
While this San Francisco 49ers team is far from competing for Super Bowls, they have showed some flashes of grit and determination all season. This past week versus the Oakland Raiders, several factors went into a great defensive showing. Dominant defensive performances share similar traits, and we look at some of those today with the help of some game film from Thursday’s domination.
The first thing I saw from the 49ers was the play of the front seven. We will see some great individual performances in the tape, but as a unit this defense really gelled and played great team defense. It starts with defensive line penetration. Our defensive line caused problems for the Raiders offensive line consistently all night long.
In our first clip, D.J. Jones bursts through the line, Sheldon Day beats his man, and crashes down the line to stop the run. Solomon Thomas does a great job of setting the edge to keep the run inside. We saw defenders beating blocks and causing havoc all night.
Great defenses swarm to the ball. Most NFL ball carriers are expecting to beat one man, and most can. Where we saw poor tackling in some previous game was due to one on one football, and we often lost. In the last few games, we’ve seen improved tackling. While some goes to overall focus and technique a lot has to do with bodies to the ball. The clip below gives a great example of that. The Raiders run a counter action, but our linebackers don’t over-pursue. In previous game film they were often out of position and forced to make one on one tackles but they’ve improved. You can see it in this clip. Malcolm Smith barely moves towards the counter, Fred Warner doesn’t even bite — he starts running left before anyone else on the defense. The defense flows down the line, and by the end of it, we’ve got close to seven 49ers around the ball.
Since we’re on the topic of our starting linebackers, Warner and Smith were unstoppable Thursday night. Warner consistently anticipated runs and played well in coverage. Smith was able to make tackles and played solid fundamental football. Let’s look at some examples.
The Raiders passing game was often relegated to screens and dump offs due to the defensive line pressure. Smith often blew by blockers and made tackles in space. He looked poised and didn’t hesitate at the point of attack. In the first clip he fights through the block and makes the tackle for loss.
In the next example, he again runs well, this time from the box to the flat and makes a form tackle to stop the screen before it even gets started.
Warner had himself a game as well. He simply has a nose for the ball. This is only his first year, but I can see so much potential in him. In our first clip, watch Warner simply shuffle down the line, he doesn’t over pursue and take himself out of the play. Eventually the ball carrier cuts right back into his area, and he takes him down.
In another Warner clip, he shoots the gap and almost takes the running backs head off. While he doesn’t initially makes the tackle, he slows the runner down so much the play is basically over after contact. The defense swarms to finish the play.
The 49ers front seven was dominant all night. It made the secondary’s job easy, and that’s what you call complimentary football. Even still it was up to the secondary to completely stifle the Raiders passing attack and they did a great job of that. We had several sacks on the night, the one below was based on a great coverage scheme and execution.
When you have a great one on one corner like Richard Sherman, it affords you certain luxuries. In the clip below Sherman is basically man up on an island with Jordy Nelson. This leaves the rest of the defense free to cover the remaining three receiving options. So we have six defenders zoned up against three receivers — that’s easy defense. As Derek Carr reaches the top of this drop there’s nowhere to go with the football. Dekoda Watson and Cassius Marsh meet at the quarterback and take him down.
Carr eventually got so antsy he started to bail out every time he dropped back. Robert Saleh calls an aggressive blitz package on 3rd down in our next clip. Each corner is one on one with no safety help. In looking at the film overall, the blitz is picked up, but Carr makes a break for the sideline and tries to float a pass over the defenders head. Carr is off his base and hurried so it’s an inaccurate throw. Another interesting thing I saw is Jimmie Ward is running across the formation to cover Jared Cook. In his path across the field he actually runs right into the slot WR, who probably would’ve been open for the completion if Ward would’ve stayed back in coverage. When you’re on, you’re on lol.
Overall the defense played sound fundamental football, when the Raiders did try misdirection or play action, we never ended up out of position. This next clip shows a great example of that. The Raiders run a play action pass with a naked bootleg to the opposite side. Watch our linebackers and strong safety Tyvis Powell. While they do initially take a few steps toward the run action, they don’t sink into the line. This allows them to quickly fall back into coverage and prevent any openings for Carr to throw. As the tape stops you can see all receiving options are blanketed. On a side note, Soloman Thomas totally over-plays the run, and is all out position but it doesn’t impact the play. Overall it was a great defensive performance at every level.
The Raiders are one of the league’s bottom feeders, and we treated them as such. The New York Giants are by far a more talented team than the Raiders so I don’t see the next game as a slam dunk. The Giants issues lie more with internal chemistry and ineffective coaching. Offensively, they have some weapons, but are held back by their poor quarterback play (sounds familiar). We will look to see if our defense can continue to keep our games close as they have the last few weeks. A few week ago, CBS Sports had the 49ers defense ranked 27th — they are now ranked 17th. Progress. While obviously the big story will be the offense, can the defense stay the course and continue to improve? Go Niners!