Just as they had against the Rams, the 49ers were forced into an adjustment on defense on early downs to shut down their opponents’ rushing attack. The Redskins were able to break off some long runs on their opening drive of the game, threatening an unwanted wrestling match in the mud. Their opening drive success was a coalescence of good planning and execution with the 49ers’ poor execution, however. Once again, though, the 49ers adjusted promptly to limit their opponents’ output and ensure they conceded no points, enabling a 9-0 road victory straight out of 1952.
Furthermore, the 49ers’ game plan offered a different approach to one that we’ve previously seen. Robert Saleh and his staff continue to keep opponents off-balance with their game plans. Against the Redskins, the 49ers played man coverage on more than 50% of their reps in pass defense.
This number would have been even higher had the Redskins not been so run orientated. It certainly appeared that the 49ers spent most of the match in man coverage, only playing more zone at the end of the game when the Redskins had to throw the ball. This was a significant departure from their play-calling for most of the season. The 49ers have played a considerable amount of zone coverage, albeit with man principles.
The 49ers’ run defense adjustments
Much like other teams have attempted this season, the Redskins set out to attack the bubble between the nose tackle and the weak side end. The Los Angeles Rams also targeted this uncovered B gap. Part of the Redskins’ success on the opening drive was a result of the 49ers’ bad execution. Players ended up in the same gap, and there was hesitation at the second level. Nevertheless, the 49ers’ coaches saw enough to make them change their strategy somewhat.
In this play, the Redskins motioned the tight end across the formation, having got the 49ers to set the strength of their formation to the other side. This enabled them to double team Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas, hopefully creating a large hole for Adrian Peterson to attack through the uncovered B gap.
However, the 49ers’ approach to countering the Redskins was somewhat different from how they countered the Rams. Due to the Redskins’ use of heavier sets, the 49ers were forced into using an eight-man box. Against the Rams, they were happier to use a seven or even a six-man box pre-snap, with split field coverage behind.
The 49ers have used eight-man boxes this season. Outside of short-yardage situations, though, the 49ers’ eight-man boxes have featured four down linemen and four-second level players. Against the Redskins, the 49ers employed five down linemen and three-second level players. This harked back to previous seasons under Robert Saleh.
Dre Greenlaw, who has been the WILL linebacker in base packages, would commonly play on the LOS as a cutback defender or force player if the Redskins ran his way. The 49ers then covered the interior linemen and took away the B gaps. Most of the time, it appeared the 49ers were rushing five players, with cover 1 behind. This season, teams have been so concerned about the 49ers pass rush, they have often kept running backs in as a sixth blocker. By sending five rushers, the 49ers have been able to keep running backs in to block for the entire play.
Additionally, by playing man coverage behind this five-man rush, the 49ers could respond to the motions/delays/play-action that the Redskins occasionally used. In this instance, Kwon Alexander and Jaquiski Tartt will have been in man coverage on the tight ends. If the tight ends did shape to run a route or motioned, Greenlaw and Bosa would just squeeze in towards the tackles whilst Alexander and Tartt followed their men. The 49ers are able to treat Alexander as a pseudo-safety as far as his usage is concerned, whilst Tartt can be treated as a pseudo-linebacker.
Having made the switch, the 49ers looked far stouter against the run. When they executed, the Redskins frequently had nowhere to go on the ground as their offense was completely stymied.
The nose tackle would slant to the backside. In this instance, it was Jullian Taylor. Fred Warner resultantly attacked the front side A gap, which forced the guard to that side to come off the strong side 3-technique. Here that was Sheldon Day, but often it was DeForest Buckner. The offensive tackle will be pre-occupied with the 3-technique (and often had an unfavorable angle), meaning the strong side linebacker - Kwon Alexander in base packages is kept clean against 2x2 formations. This creates a chasm for Alexander to shoot. It also isolates Bosa on a single tight end, which is a problem for any offense. He easily came free for the TFL after Alexander’s initial attempt. The adjustment maximised their players’ strengths.
The 49ers do similarly here. Again, we see how the nose tackle is slanting across to the backside A gap and Warner coming into the front side A gap forces the tackle to have to handle the front side 3-technique alone with unfavorable leverage. Having absorbed the initial double team easily (Buckner has improved massively here this season), Buckner then beats the tackle inside to make the quick stop. Bosa also eats up both tight ends, which keeps Tartt and Alexander free on the front side.
This play is a further demonstration of the effectiveness of the 49ers’ adjustment and the quality they had on the field to execute. The Redskins, having seen the 49ers adjust, attempt to attack the front side A gap that is theoretically occupied by a linebacker. They planned to send the full-back through to open up the hole. However, Alexander’s gap in this play is merely to go where the full-back goes. He and Warner, therefore, combine to force Peterson to bounce outside and away from the front-side A gap. Alexander meets the FB in the hole, and Warner works inside him.
Meanwhile, we also see how the 49ers’ man coverage assignments shape their responses to this play. Keenum shapes to pass, and the tight end and receiver on the left side of the screen appear to prepare to run routes. Tartt and Sherman move to cover them with the outside leverage cover 1 in this scheme ask of them. This also gives them outside leverage against the run. When it becomes apparent that this is a run play, however, and with Peterson bouncing outside, Tartt has much ground to cover. Nevertheless, he shows excellent hands to shed the tight end and then hustles up to bring Peterson down.
This play also demonstrates the benefits of Bosa’s gap versatility. Unlike previous seasons, the 49ers no longer have weak side and strong-side defensive ends. They have reverted to left and right, with Bosa playing 94% of his snaps on the right side of the defensive line. This adjustment would not work as fluidly if he could not play outside and inside. On this play, he’s aligned as the weak side 3-technique and dominates the opposition guard.
Even when the 49ers did not appear to have a five-man front, Saleh would scheme one up on occasion.
Saleh essentially gets his five-man front by blitzing Tartt into the backside D gap whilst slanting Buckner into the A gap & Bosa into the B gap. Alexander has the backside C gap but is clearly slow playing it due to the run direction. Warner is free to flow with the full-back here.
Seeing what they thought was a four-man front, the Redskins once again attacked the bubble between Thomas & Armstead. Unfortunately for them, Armstead held up Moses, impeding the FB while Buckner, having slanted across the guard into the backside A gap, flew across to make the stop.
It wasn’t just five-man fronts that got the job done, however. Much like against the Rams, gap exchanges continued to give offenses issues. With Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner inside, the 49ers have two defensive tackles who are far too athletic for most offensive linemen.
Saleh calls for a gap exchange on this play. Thomas and Buckner move one gap to their left. Correspondingly, Tartt and Warner shift gaps to their right. Alexander meanwhile, is tasked with running with jet action. This shows the trust Saleh has in both Tartt and Alexander and the degree of interchangeability that they have this season.
Immediately off the snap, Thomas explodes into the B gap. Again, it appears the Redskins may have been targeting it, and Peterson is forced to change course. Thomas then beats Morgan Moses and can make the stop. Alexander has also worked back into the front-side B gap, given the dummy jet action, and helps make the stop.
The 49ers were also able to clog things up by getting more aggressive at the second level.
Alexander flies up into the front-side A-gap when he reads run. Warner plays close to the LOS in the back-side B gap. Blair squeezes in towards the tackle, aggressively attacking the C gap. He is perhaps a little over-aggressive, however. Tartt has the front-side D gap, and he too steps up aggressively. He then easily tosses the wide receiver aside and gets a hold of Peterson before Blair and Buckner help finish the play.
Overall, after a first drive where the Redskins attacked the bubble with some success (helped by a lack of gap soundness & decisiveness at the second level), the 49ers shut things down.
Five man fronts, pseudo-five man fronts, gap exchanges, & aggressive second-level play slowed the rushing game for the rest of the match. Once again, the 49ers’ coaches adjusted quickly & made the necessary changes based on the opposition. The players executed & no points were conceded.
This game also provided an insight into the value of several of the 49ers’ players. Nick Bosa has shone as a pass rusher, but his run defense and gap versatility were a crucial part of the 49ers’ success. He is proving himself to be unblockable in one-on-one situations for any player, and two tight ends really struggle with him.
Kwon Alexander and Jaquiski Tartt also showed their quality and, to some extent, their interchangeability. Both are trusted to be in the thick of things as run defenders in the box as well as to chase jet action and shoot gaps when unblocked.
Alexander’s performances have been particularly noteworthy. The league has been trending towards three safety packages. In Alexander, however, the 49ers appear to have found the ideal skillset for a box safety in a linebacker’s frame. He is looking like a sensational addition.