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Why 49ers’ coaches should remain hopeful about pass rush

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Despite only one sack against the Colts, coaches should be optimistic.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In the simplest terms, I have always thought that the fundamentals to building an ideal roster begins with three things:

  1. A quarterback
  2. Someone to protect the quarterback
  3. Someone to go sack the other quarterback

San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch has added quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo via trade, tackle Mike McGlinchey via draft, and center Weston Richburg via free agency, but hasn’t answered the bell on a pass rusher — yet. Lynch and the front office have brought in numerous veteran defenders, including Dekoda Watson, Cassius Marsh, Jeremiah Attaochu, and Mark Nzeocha, in hopes that they could band-aid the pass-rushing problem.

Through three preseason games, the 49ers’ defense is averaging one sack per game — a statistic that is going to haunt the team in the regular season. During Tuesday’s press conference, the Bay Area media asked head coach Kyle Shanahan about his defense’s rushing ability.

“Yeah definitely, and we’re going to have to. Watching that whole game, I was pleased with our rush. I thought we effected the quarterback and stuff. Obviously, you’d like more sacks than one, but I thought we pushed that pocket well. I thought we had the opportunity to get more than one, we just didn’t come through with it. I know [Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew] Luck did a really good job getting away on one in particular where it was, I think third-and-13 where he scrambled for a first. I thought collectively that was one of our best rushes of the game, too. If we rush like that every week and we get pressure on the quarterback like we did, I’ll be happy.”

Earlier this week, Lynch was on KNBR and was asked about the team’s pass rushing performance against the Colts.

“I think the one thing that was encouraging was that [defensive linemen] Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead were back and we thought that would be a great measuring stick of where we’re at. The great news is that you really have to affect the quarterback and we did that the other night. Much like the offense, we didn’t finish the deal. We were around him [Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck] and disrupted him... Now we just have to work on finishing the deal.”

So far, it looks like the band-aid that Lynch is trying to apply along the defensive line, is working as well as one would hope. The rushers are surrounding the opposing quarterback, but are unable to finish the play and bring him down in the backfield.

Per Pro Football Focus’ Jeff Deeney, the 49ers pressured the Colts’ quarterbacks on 40 percent of drop backs, but only were able to generate one sack. Robert Saleh’s life would be easier if the 49ers closed the deal more on sacks, but he stated during camp that, “sacks are probably the most overrated stat to me. It’s about pressuring the quarterback and making him feel very uncomfortable and increasing our pressure rate.”

Sacks are valuable, but here are some reasons to remain optimistic about the pass rush.

Although this first play ends in a sack, it describes the 49ers’ current — and fixable — problem perfectly. Thomas forces the pressure from the inside, but whiffs on bringing Luck down. Luckily (no pun intendended), Marsh and DeForest Buckner were there to seal the deal.

In this next clip, Armstead pushes the guard right back into Luck’s lap, with Marsh, Buckner and Watson in pursuit. The Colts’ quarterback is able to narrowly sneak past all of the defensive lineman and get away from the sack. There should be no excuse for the 49ers’ defenders to not finish this play.

Armstead beats the left tackle in this play inside, but it opens up the edge, allowing Luck to rush for a first down. While it’s likely that the ex-Oregon lineman needed to set the edge, his pressure up the middle was a risk that was nearly rewarded with a sack.

In this clip, Buckner and Thomas beat their matchups, forcing the ball out of Luck’s hands quickly. While this doesn’t account for a sack, the defensive line does its job forcing the ball out as fast as possible.

To echo Lynch and Shanahan’s sentiments, the pass rush continues to pressure and surround the quarterback, but aren’t finishing the play. Early in the season, it will be something to monitor, because it’s an easy problem to fix, but is frustrating in the mean time, while the quarterback pulls off a Houdini act to escape from the clutches of a sack.