When the news broke that the 49ers had traded Eli Harold, many fans’ reactions were probably quite similar. Whilst the frustration with Harold’s performances on the field was palpable, especially regarding his pass rushing, there was still a feeling that he offered the 49ers something on running downs, as a forceful edge setter who funneled plays into his better known and better respected colleagues. But now he was out, and replaced by who exactly? Two guys whose names seem impossible to pronounce with twenty-five regular season snaps between them. Mark Nzeocha had all twenty-five.
Not only were both those players inexperienced, but they were also quite different from one another. Pita Taumoepenu is a natural EDGE player, much like Harold, whilst Nzeocha played a sort of safety-linebacker hybrid position in college and has played as an off-ball linebacker in the NFL. In handing Nzeocha the first shot to win the job, the 49ers have a player with a more versatile skillset than Harold at the SAM spot, and in early action he appears quite capable of holding up as an edge setter whilst offering more in coverage — the area Harold struggled with most and was unsurprisingly targeted in by opposition sides.
Nzeocha’s versatility is indicative of the varied and difficult demands placed upon the 49ers’ SAM linebackers. These demands are not just confined to the challenges of having to possess the physical ability to consistently set a good edge whilst also being in possession of the movement skills to drop into coverage in the flats from a position on the line of scrimmage. The biggest demand appears to be the requirement that the SAM can contribute on all three defensive downs if need be, and on special teams. The interchangeability of the SAMs and LEOs has been overblown from a schematic standpoint — in reality it’s a roster construction issue more than anything else. They are the most similar body types and with the backgrounds of many of that group as EDGE players, there is a quite valid expectation that they can contribute as run stoppers (i.e. as SAM linebackers on run downs) and then pass rushers (as LEO types on passing downs). Now however, the 49ers’ starting SAM linebacker is more interchangeable with the off-ball linebacker positions, having played all three spots in preseason. Harold was moved on because he really only had value on base downs, his former backups have more varied skillsets and have value on all four downs if required, including special teams.
Whilst it is still early for Nzeocha, the signs thus far are positive. Beginning with his contribution as a run defender, he has shown himself to be effective as an edge setter as well as possessing the explosiveness to get into the backfield and make stops if necessary.
His primary responsibility at SAM is likely to be run defense, where he’ll align on the LOS as well as off it. Jullian Taylor got most of the credit on this rep; Nzeocha also gets good penetration off the snap and causes disruption between the TEs. Good power & body position pic.twitter.com/GG13V4LcMh— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 23, 2018
2 similar reps hopefully will be the start of a pattern. My earlier thread on Nzeocha contained a similar play, and this time he makes the stop. Shows excellent burst to get across the face of the TE & into the backfield. 3rd down stop pic.twitter.com/QXsQ3Wh6YE— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 27, 2018
Good edge setting here. Gets upfield reasonably well off the snap, but more importantly gets into the chest of the TE and gets full extension. Controls him and forces the RB back inside, where DJ Jones is doing DJ Jones things (what a player that guy is looking like). TFL pic.twitter.com/DQwqGwgQK9— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 27, 2018
He has also shown the hustle to get back into plays that he gets pushed out of or makes harder for himself through bad habits/bad recognition (it’s a little unclear which it is).
That slightly bad habit he seems to have of back-pedalling off the snap is on show here, poor recognition or just a bad habit?? Regardless, able to easily free himself of the receiver trying to block and get back into the play pic.twitter.com/IOcmHphoxu— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 27, 2018
A slightly inauspicious start. With the Colts in 13 personnel he isn’t edge setting, and gets forced inside and seemingly out of the play by a TE. BUT has the motor to get back into the play and make a stop. Colts were on 2nd and 8, Nzeocha ensures they only get to 3rd and 5 pic.twitter.com/da8t3PEQCT— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 27, 2018
However, that particular bad habit/his bad recognition has caused him to miss assignments too. If unblocked, he cannot afford to give running backs the edge by giving too much ground.
This however, is not what you want. A knock on Nzeocha coming out of college was that his lack of experience showed up in his poor play recognition. This is on display here, compounded by pursuing too far downfield & inside, resulting in a failure to prevent the cutback pic.twitter.com/QH3KAErFOK— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 23, 2018
That being said, his run defense has, so far been effective. Equally, if not more so, has been his coverage. Unsurprisingly, there is some bad mixed in with the good, but his movement skills and fluidity are both tremendous positives at a position that offenses can go after in the passing game, especially when utilizing play action to get the SAM to engage or step up.
Another integral part of Nzeocha’s role will be seam-flats or curl-flats coverage. He plays off the ball here, and you can see he moves more fluidly than Harold, especially once he drives towards the ball once it’s in the air. Another missed tackle though pic.twitter.com/NxDOvdysSq— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 23, 2018
Another rep where he demonstrates good fluidity in coverage, picking up a tight end crossing the formation on play action, turning and running with him before settling into his back pocket pic.twitter.com/wuWkB8jMsS— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 23, 2018
Fluidity in coverage is a bit of a theme (the next rep is less good though). On this rep, he’s in man coverage vs a RB out of empty. Stays square, no wasted steps and is able to break with the back on the out route from off coverage pic.twitter.com/IHQMRAEhD9— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 23, 2018
A fantastic play in coverage with a terrible call from the officials. Goes out of shot but is playing flats in c3 cloud (49ers play this in base when the opposition are in 12 personnel & align both receivers to the strong side). Comes downhill and stops the RB for a two yard gain pic.twitter.com/i8GkFFaHVt— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 27, 2018
There was one bad play in coverage, but the likelihood of him being in this situation are slim from my charting of the 49ers’ defense from last year. He’s matched up man to man with a running back, and as is clear, gets thoroughly beaten for a first down. However, given Nzeocha is only likely to be utilized in base packages at the moment, and the 49ers play zone coverage almost exclusively out of those packages, this assignment should not happen too frequently.
Perhaps not the happiest end in terms of plays... but should ensure some balance and realism before he gets his first start. Horribly beaten by a Texas route, as he opens up his stride far too soon (doesn’t back his speed which he has plenty of). Result is a 1st down from 3rd & 9 pic.twitter.com/I0ZiAa4JOg— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) August 23, 2018
The bottom line for Nzeocha is that whilst a little raw, he has shown plenty of promise in his time at SAM linebacker. In Saturday’s game, he made three defensive stops on just eleven plays, per PFF, offering a glimpse of a playmaking ability far beyond that shown by Eli Harold in his three years of play as a 49er. With a body type and background more similar to that of the Jaguars’ Myles Jack, Nzeocha is more similar to what DC Robert Saleh had in his final year in Jacksonville at the SAM position. This off-ball linebacker background seems to provide a desirable blend of edge setting ability, explosiveness and fluidity in coverage that gives a player a good chance of success as a SAM in the 49ers’ defense. Whilst we’ll have to wait until the regular reason rolls around before we can make any kind of lasting judgement on Nzeocha, he has thus far risen to the challenge.