The San Francisco 49ers have considerable depth along the defensive line, which provides for an extensive rotation throughout the game. In Week 1, defensive tackle Arik Armstead led the team with 59 snaps, which represented 83 percent of total defensive snaps. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner followed him with 54 snaps and edge rusher Cassius Marsh was next with 39 snaps. Second year first round pick Solomon Thomas showed up next with 35 snaps.
Thomas is one of the team’s starting defensive ends when they are in their basic 4-3 look, but his work in sub-packages was a little bit all over the place against the Vikings. Buckner plays inside on passing downs, and on Sunday, Armstead was the primary second defensive tackle in those situations.
On Thursday, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh explained why we saw more of Armstead this past week. And his reference of “two six-foot-seven-trees” makes a ton of sense.
“Arik’s shown, when he came back with that Indianapolis game, he’s playing with a mindset and if he continues with this in the way he’s going, he’s a very large human being and when he plays like a very large human being and plays with that mindset of power, he is a very, very hard human being to block. Very hard. When you’ve got two six-foot-seven trees in the middle pushing the pocket and playing with that mindset, it is very hard for a quarterback to be able to see down the middle of a field. What he’s showed when he came back from his injury and during OTAs and then the Indianapolis game with the pocket push that he was able to create, felt like it would be great to give him the first opp at that. So, he’s very promising with what he has shown.”
What’s the plan then with Thomas? Saleh was asked if the plan was to have him play primarily on first and second downs.
“He’ll get run on third down. He’s not dead at all in that regard. In the second half there, we had a run of three-and-outs so there’s just no chance to be able to get him out there. He still managed to get 35 plays. From a snap count-wise, we’re always challenging ourselves to get all our D-Linemen under 50. So, I felt like [DL] Sheldon Day should have played a little bit more, [DL] Ronald Blair [III] should have played a little bit more. I’m trying to make sure that those guys are fresh, not only for the fourth quarter in pass-rush mode, but as the season wears on. It’s the same plan for Solly. He’ll still play base downs outside. Trying to find opportunities for him to rush inside on obvious passing situations. He’ll get some action hopefully this week against Detroit.”
Saleh is still confident in Thomas, and citing his strong run game work.
“Solly is very hard to block. He’s very, very explosive. He fires off the ball. He’s got great leverage, good hand usage. From that standpoint, he’s a really good run defender and he’s actually quick. He can disengage quick and get to the ball carrier quick. He doesn’t give up a lot of ground on double teams, so he’s a very good run defender in that regard. Obviously, we fully trust him to defend the run.”
Thomas’ best plays usually have come in run defense. It feels like we see him each week shooting into the backfield for a solid run stop. It does not happen with regularity in a given game, but that’s where he seems to make his bones. It’s not exactly ideal performance from the second overall pick, but it is an area where he has success.
The 49ers will need to get pressure on Matthew Stafford this weekend. He struggled with accuracy last week, but that came in spite of the New York Jets not getting all that much pressure on him. If the 49ers struggled to get pressure on Stafford, I don’t think we see a similar performance from the Lions quarterback. Pressure will be key to shaking him up, and they need Thomas to add to the mix.