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49ers unleash a youthful wave on the Broncos

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Robert Saleh deploys young talent upfront to upend the Broncos

Denver Broncos v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images

Last Sunday’s contest versus the Denver Broncos yielded several highlights for the San Francisco 49ers. While George Kittle and Nick Mullens stole most of the spotlight, quietly the defense shut down one of the league’s most productive running backs. Phillip Lindsay is living the dream as an undrafted free agent who earned the starting gig. On the year he’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry and 74.4 yards per game.

He hit a scarlet and gold wall this past weekend however and managed only 30 yards at 2.14 yards a run. The real story here is how the 49ers completed this task. It appeared that the youth movement and years of front line picks finally came together to give us a glimpse of what we expected. Our three first round defensive linemen, Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead, and Deforest Buckner, shut down running lanes and terrorized Case Keenum. Late round picks Ronald Blair, Jullian Taylor, and D.J. Jones consistently ran through blockers and caused havoc. This dominance up front made things easy for our young linebackers Fred Warner and Elijah Lee to attack and flow to the ball untouched. Today we will look at some plays from the front seven and how they were able to win the game for us.

Our first play is a designed cutback run. Buckner, Jones, and Armstead eat up the blockers as Lindsay pivots towards the line of scrimmage. Warner and Jones recognize the play direction and flow to the ball. The runner is stopped before he can gain any yards.

Another great team effort on this play. The Broncos look to run right. As the play develops Taylor pushes his blocker several yards into the backfield and sets a solid edge. This forces Lindsay back towards the line of scrimmage. Jones does a great job of not allowing the center to get to him on the reach block, he shuffles down the line and meets the running back in the hole.

In this next clip, the back manages to gain about four yards on this play, but it’s still a solid defensive showing. Thomas, who played much better inside, beats his blockers before the running back even gets the ball. This forces the quick cutback by Lindsay. Jones and Armstead barely miss the tackle for loss, but the back is eventually upended after a short gain. Good to see Thomas beating blocks like he did in college.

The team also got some good pressure on Keenum. Cassius Marsh beats the tackle around the edge forcing Keenum up in the pocket. Thomas is easily walking the guard right into his lap. As he looks for room to throw, a spying Warner rushes him and forces a hurried throw on the run. The off schedule pass falls incomplete. The Broncos were held to 2-15 on 3rd down because of plays like this.

Let’s look at some individual performances as well from Sunday. D.J. Jones stands at 6’0 and weighs a monstrous 321 pounds. Yet, despite his size he’s exceptionally nimble and athletic. Watch this 321 pound spin move. He closes down on the back with a vengeance.

Arik Armstead is having his best season this year. He’s gone from basically being labeled a bust to putting together a campaign that should get him renewed this off season. In this clip, he’s lined up inside shading the center. At the snap he basically bench presses the blocker with one arm, pushes him to the ground, and then proceeds to make the tackle in the backfield. Blair also helps on the play by setting the edge so Lindsay can’t run away from Armstead.

We all know Buckner is our best defender. I couldn’t write an article on the front seven without at least one clip of DeFo doing DeFo things. Again, this guy is 6’7 300 pounds and jumps off the line and past the blockers so fast he meets Lindsay at the hand off. Hello!

The leader of the rookie wave this year is unquestionably Fred Warner. He’s started every game and leads the team in tackles and defensive snaps. I’m sure he enjoyed this game simply being able to roam around and not have to take on massive centers and guards. Taylor occupies two blockers with his bull rush. The Broncos try to run a receiver out to block Warner, but he easily dodges him and shoots through the hole to make the tackle for loss.

We’ve all had our doubts this season, not only about the 2018 draft class, but also about the 2017 and 2016 draft. Yet for one week the vision looked true. When the season started, veterans like Malcolm Smith and Earl Mitchell occupied room on the depth chart preventing some of our youngsters from hitting the field. It’s possible they weren’t ready. Thomas and Armstead seemed to be failed projects, but both have built solid momentum the last few weeks. Armstead has been solid all season. Ronald Blair consistently gets time and takes full advantage of every play he gets — he just finds the ball and causes havoc.

It’s good to see our younger talent pan out and look like something. I’ll be even more concrete in my convictions if they can pull out a similar performance against the Seahawks this weekend. Two weeks ago, it was a blowout in Seattle. We saw flashes from the young guns, but it was short lived. The more solid young players we can develop the better. If this season teaches us anything, it’s that you need depth at every position to compete because injuries pile up for everyone. Go Niners!