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The interesting dynamic of the 49ers defensive line coaches

You’re already the established DL position coach but your team decides to bring in another coach to up the performance of your group, what happens next?

Jennifer Lee Chan

There is no doubt that there are a lot of egos in football. If you don’t have confidence, the game really isn’t for you. From players to coaches, lack of confidence can lead to hesitation and hesitation can lead to missed assignments and plays. So when Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh chose to add “pass rush specialist” Chris Kiffin to the coaching staff, defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina had to adjust his approach and share the room with him.

It’s not that Zgonina didn’t have some success last year amid many challenges. The 49ers went from being 31st in run defense in 2016 to being ranked 17th in 2017 according to Football Outsiders. Zgonina couldn’t work with first round draft pick Solomon Thomas until much later in the offseason due to NFL school rules (which have since been eliminated), Arik Armstead’s season was cut short due to injury, and Ronald Blair missed the first half of the season with an injury.

While the team has yet to play a game in 2018, and there’s no live tackling in practice, one of the biggest challenges of the 2017 season for the defense, the pass rush, could be improving. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has tried to simplify the pass rush describing it as making it more black and white, less gray. Players have explained that their approach and responsibilities on the field have become more specific, which should in turn, raise their productivity.

Simplification and the addition of Kiffin to the room could raise the performance of the pass rush but what are the risks? Zgonina had a 17 year career as a defensive tackle in the NFL which is an eternity by any standard. Kiffin has never played a down. This will be Zgonina’s fourth season as an NFL coach, this will be Kiffin’s first. Kiffin’s eleven year coaching career has been entirely at the college level, yet he comes with an NFL pedigree being the son of Monte Kiffin, as well as the brother of Lane.

Saleh explained the pecking order in the DL room:

“Z [Jeff Zgonina] is still the lead voice. You always have a one and two, but the reality is that we’re grown men and grown men need to work together to achieve one goal. That’s players, that’s coaches, that’s everybody. The one thing that we talk about on defense whether you’re a player or a coach is check your ego at the door and get ready to play team ball. So, for them to work together is an expectation, but it is hard. Sometimes people get territorial but Z and Kiff do a great job of working together, communicating. But again, we’re grown men so if it was any other way, we’d have a problem.”

Zgonina was a player who excelled against the run. The 49ers defensive line definitely improved against it but what the DL needs is to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That’s what Kiffin brings to the table.

“You hope that they’re both learning from each other. Z still knows how to coach pass rush, and he’s a fantastic defensive line coach. He wouldn’t be the defensive line coach if he wasn’t. But, like I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of ideas floating around last year and the reality is that there has got to be one idea and that one idea needs to have great conviction. That’s where all the studying went this offseason. So, I’m excited about the way those two are working and excited about the way the players have responded to both of them and I’m excited about where they’re going. So, again, the games are going to show up so we’ll see.”

One of the changes that could affect the production of the pass rush is DeForest Buckner moving to the outside in certain packages which they have already started implementing in training camp. That would allow Solomon Thomas to work on the inside, where he was very productive throughout his college career.

Regardless of who’s idea it was to move Buckner to the outside, it appears that the two coaches have a good working relationship. Buckner explains:

Having Kiff, it’s kind of a balance, you know, Coach Z is kind of a loud guy, and Kiff is pretty quiet but they kind of balance each other out. When we’re in practice doing the run game, Z’s really coaching us up on that and how to do our run reads and everything. Kiff, he’s the whole pass rush side of everything. When we’re in the classroom, both of them do a really good job with breaking it up.

When we watch film, we go through all the run plays throughout practice, what we need to work on, what we did good technique wise. The next half of watching film is with Kiff and all the pass plays that we had, that we had pass pressures on, and what we need to do better pass rushing as a unit and individually with our technique. So, it’s a good balance.

Time will tell if this combination will translate to production on the field but it seems that the dual headed defensive line coaching monster is off to a good start.