Seven. The number of takeaways the San Francisco 49ers had in 2018. The Detroit Lions were the next closest at 14. The Niners addressed that this past offseason by adding two premier pass rushers. The 49ers rushed the passer 77% of the time last year with four rushers. Only three teams rushed with four at a higher rate. The problem is San Francisco was the third-worst defense when they didn’t get pressure. That’s where the additions of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa come into play.
That’s putting a lot of burden on two players to transform a defense, but you paid a steep price for the two to perform. It’s a safe bet that the 49ers will have more than seven takeaways in 2019. I’ll give you two reasons why they’ll be closer to the middle of the pack—which is usually around 20—and one reason they’ll fall short of 14.
Time to throw
Watching the 49ers against Tampa Bay last year, the passing plays are all the same. Jameis Winston has three seconds to complete a pass down the field. For reference, C.J. Beathard was 27th last year with 2.61 seconds to throw last season. Nick Mullens was closer to the middle of the pack with 2.7 seconds to throw.
The number of 1-on-1 matchups the 49ers will have on the defensive line will shave a couple of tenths off whatever the average time to throw was a year ago. 1-on-1’s lead to pressures. Pressures lead to mistakes. Mistakes lead to turnovers. If it’s the third quarter and Dee Ford has been whipping the left tackle all game, that’s in the back of the quarterbacks’ mind. His clock is going to speed up, and he might try and force a pass he may not have. That’s just one of many situations that the 49ers could run into this year.
The amount of 1-on-1’s the defensive line will face will be a benefit Robert Saleh has yet to have as a coordinator, but his lack of aggressiveness could still be costly.
Zone, zone, zone
Every offseason, every coach ever comes out and says, “we want to be more aggressive on defense. We want to play faster. We want to be more versatile.” Saleh comes from a tree of coordinators that stick to what they know. Rush four, play coverage, keep the offense short of the sticks and get off of the field. Bend but don’t break. If you give up three points, it’s better than seven.
The Niners can be much-improved on defense, and it not reflect in the turnover column. The defense ran zone coverage 48% of the time last year, which was the 11th most in the NFL. We know the pressure the defensive line faces to get after the quarterback, but the secondary faces plenty themselves. Zone defense puts players in more of a “passive” mindset. Your underneath defenders better be aware and able to get into throwing lanes. The Colts and Chargers were able to accomplish that last year, and that led to turnovers.
The problem with this system is you draft long, lengthy corners that are suited to play press-man, only to use them in a zone. It’s not just not Saleh, that’s the system. The lack of aggression, players preventing the first down, as opposed to making the play, could be the reason the Niners fall short of doubling their turnover number from a year ago. Luckily, the offense should be dangerous.
Playing with the lead equals more takeaways
Ford was dominant last year because Kansas City had the lead in the second half often. Even before that, the pressure Patrick Mahomes and that offense put on opposing teams to keep up and score forced a lot of dropbacks. More dropbacks equal more potential for pressures and turnovers. Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo can change that.
The offense rarely played with the lead. The schedule suggests that it will be a different story this year. So does the roster. There’s better depth at each skill position, and the offensive line returns every starter. Garoppolo doesn’t have to play out of his mind for the 49ers to consistently put points on the board. That’ll be a change from 2018, where unless a big-play happened, the odds of ending a possession in a touchdown were slim.
The offense can help the defense in more ways than one, but playing from ahead might be the greatest support they can show.