The San Francisco 49ers have made it pretty clear they are going to rely on their defensive line to pressure the quarterback. They are near the bottom of the league in blitzing, instead choosing to send their front four as the primary pass rushers.
Through two weeks, the 49ers rank No. 19 in adjusted sack rate at Football Outsiders. From an individual perspective, DeForest Buckner has been the most productive of the team’s pass rushing options. Arik Armstead has a greater win rate inside (18.5 percent to 13.2 percent), but Buckner’s volume coupled with having more decisive wins results in a higher pass rush grade at Pro Football Focus.
The group has work to do, but I suppose it’s not nearly as awful as it could be. If the team looks at some adjustments, we could see the group take a step forward. Most notably, second-year defensive lineman Solomon Thomas deserves more time inside. He has done great work as a run stopper on the edge. That is his strength, and thus far has been the role that has generated the most success.
However, in the few instances Thomas has been able to rush the passer from the interior, he has found success. Thomas has played 71 snaps on the defensive line through two weeks. Of that, 60 have been as either left or right edge rusher, and 11 have been what would qualify as the defensive interior, according to PFF. From those 11 snaps, Thomas has rushed the passer on nine. PFF gives him a win rate of 22.2 percent on those snaps. It is a small sample size, but it is higher than that of Armstead and Buckner. Odds are he would not hold up that rate, but it does show some measure of success inside.
The 49ers have given DeForest Buckner more work outside than in previous years. Last year, he was an edge defender on two percent of snaps, according to PFF. In two games this season, that rate has increased to 17 percent. The 49ers are not going to make a significant shift in this direction, but getting Thomas inside more frequently in passing situations seems like a good way to beef up the pass rush. You could potentially have a line that includes Buckner, Thomas, Armstead, and Marsh, and maximize the pass rushing talent.
Thomas took a step forward in Week 2, offering up a little more in both run and pass defense. He continues to do great work getting a hand on ball carriers in the run game. He also finished the game with four hurries, and looked solid rushing the passer from the inside. It has not exactly looked like what you would expect from a third overall pick, but it also seems like it has been enough to earn a bigger role. The 49ers defense faces a huge test this weekend against the Chiefs, and it might be time to try some new things to beef up the pass rush consistency.