The short version of this article is: the 49ers defense played superbly.
The defense scored more points on Sunday than it gave it. Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was sacked three times, threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and fumbled three times, one of which was recovered by the 49ers. To put it bluntly, it was not the performance anyone was expecting so soon from a defense that revamped it’s a scheme in the offseason and added some new faces as well.
The defense got production from all levels, from the front four, to the linebackers, to the secondary. They put together a defensive performance that we have not seen probably since Vic Fangio was the defensive coordinator. They had two interceptions in 16 games last season. They had three Sunday. The last time a 49ers cornerback had an interception was in week 16 of 2017. Two corners, Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon, both had pick-6’s on Sunday.
And the newcomers, from defensive end Nick Bosa and Dee Ford to linebacker Kwon Alexander, to familiar faces like DeForest Buckner and Fred Warner all got in on the action, making key plays and getting key stops.
Key plays on defense
First play, 1st quarter, 3rd and 12 at the SF 48, 7:45
This is the 11th play of this particular drive. The Buccaneers line up in a 3x1 formation with the trips to the right. The 49ers defense lines up three of their four defensive linemen in an overloaded front from the A-gap to the right, over the tackle, and out wide outside the tackle. Ford was opposite the cluster to the left out wide with linebacker Fred Warner showing a simulated pressure. The coverage shell is quarters.
The front is designed to simulate pressure with a five-person front and cause confusion in the pass protection by hopefully sliding the protection and leaving a gap or two exposed to a free rusher. The simulated pressure packages are becoming all the rage right now as defenses learn to counter quicker passing games and create more favorable match-ups.
The rush of Bosa, Buckner, and Armstead collapses the pocket around quarterback Jameis Winston as Warner drops into coverage. Winston is forced to step-up and attempt a throw down the sideline and doesn’t see linebacker Kwon Alexander dropping down the seam to undercut the receiver, how he drops the interception. It was a missed opportunity for something more but getting off the field after a long 11 plays in the humidity of Florida was more than ideal.
Second play, 2nd quarter, 3rd and goal at the SF 19, 12:01
The next defensive series had the 49ers out on the field for 17 total plays, a drive that was extended by the personal foul penalty on Alexander to lower his helmet to initiate contact. The defense had also just given up a long 18-yard reception to running back Ronald Jones, a play where they had every single non-defensive linemen lined up across the line to gain. Jones seemingly broke three tackles before being pushed out of bounds.
The Bucs then had a touchdown wiped off the board for a holding penalty, one that pushed them to the edge of the red zone. The 49ers are in nickel here guarding all levels of the field this time. The Bucs are looking to take a shot at the end zone and if they can’t at least get closer for a field goal. Winston is unable to throw deep and if forced to step up into the pocket where Bosa and Ford both bull rush their blockers into his lap. Winston checks it down over the middle to tight end OJ Howard and has he turns to run, linebacker Fred warner comes in and punches the ball out of his grasp, allowing Ronald Blair to recover.
Third play, 3rd quarter, 2nd and 13 at the TB 22, 11:53
The play result was a pick six for Richard Sherman, who took advantage of a bad throw from Winston to Peyton Barber in the flat.
The defensive play call is called a “creeper” pressure that sends the fourth rusher from a different area of the field rather than rushing a traditional four-man defensive line. It’s distinguished from a fire zone blitz, which typically adds a fifth rusher to the front though, in the creeper, a defensive lineman drops into an underneath zone, usually a shallow hook zone and covers anything down the seam.
On this play, defensive end Solomon Thomas drops down the hash to cover the tight end while Fred Warner slides to the other hash and replaces Dre Greenlaw, who becomes the fourth rusher. As I mentioned earlier, the simulated pressures are designed to confuse the offensive line and make them second guess their pass protection assignments. Sheldon day stunts across the face of the guard into the A-gap while Greenlaw rushes the B-gap.
Right tackle Demar Dotson slides over to pick up Greenlaw and leaves Ronald Blair alone on a free rush. He was probably expecting right guard Alex Cappa to pick up Greenlaw, but Cappa slid over with Day’s rush into the A-gap because he was not expecting Greenlaw to rush from that depth. That’s the nature of a creeper pressure. The Buccaneers’ offensive line slid their protection to the left because the 49ers showed simulated pressure from Warner and both Julian Taylor and Solomon Thomas.
That’s the nature of a creeper pressure. The Buccaneers’ offensive line slid their protection to the left because the 49ers showed simulated pressure from Warner and both Julian Taylor and Solomon Thomas.
4th play, 4th quarter, 4th and 2 at the SF 2, 13:07
The 49ers bend but don’t break approach served them well in this game and this drive, as much any that came after it, was as equally important to the outcome as the final two drives. Tarvarius Moore’s fourth-down stop prevented the Buccaneers from adding any points.
The Buccaneers line up in a tight 3x2 empty formation trying to take advantage of the space they have at the goal line by running some crossers to create a rub on the defenders in tight quarters. The 49ers are essentially playing a variant of cover-1 “dog” which is a five-man rush and man coverage across the board with a roaming free safety.
It appeared there was a blown coverage and that Tartt or Warner should’ve run with the underneath slant route, but Moore was lurking around the area anyways watching Winston’s eyes. Winston telegraphed the throw the entire way through his release, allowing Moore to undercut the route and break up the pass. Had Moore caught the interception, it likely would have the third pick-six of the day.
5th play, 4th quarter, 1st and 10 at the TB 21, 2:10
The 49ers defense sealed the game with another pick-six by Ahkello Witherspoon on Winston when Winston, under pressure, just tossed the ball up. Witherspoon was there waiting for the lob, caught it, and returned it for the touchdown.
The 49ers are playing a cover-3 buzz where safety Jaquiski Tartt rotates down to the alley in hook zone. The key to this play, though, is the pass rush, a four-man pass rush bookended by Ford on the left and Bosa on the right.
Ford and Bosa both drive their blockers into the backfield. Ford executes a “dip and rip” to get by his man and Bosa uses a bull rush to beat his man. The pass rush blows up the screen pass the Buccaneers were attempting, with Ford and Bosa both meeting at the quarterback as he attempted to hit the screen. Instead, he overshoots the target, and the pass goes into the waiting hands of Witherspoon.
Nick Bosa and the pass rush
Speaking of the pass rush, Bosa, Ford, and Armstead led the team in total pressures according to Pro Football Focus. Bosa led the defensive line with six total pressures: two hits, two hurries, and was credited with two sacks (probably really a half-sack on Armstead’s sack).
His first sack came late in the third quarter and was more than likely due to the pass coverage, but it partially shows why the 49ers drafted him: his effort and motor. What makes Bosa an effective pass rusher is his ability to get inside an offensive lineman’s reach and engage in a kind of initial bull rush before shedding the blocker.
On the sack, he engages with a low pad level and gets the tackle to extend. As the tackle extends, he pulls the blocker’s arm, controls the wrist, and swipes him to get free. He chases down Winston and finishes with the sack.
Bosa was also winning inside pass rush reps against left tackle Donavan Smith.
Here on these plays, he uses a couple of different ways to win, the first clip with a club and swipe move, the second with a jab step to the outside shoulder of Smith before crossing his face and swiping away Smith’s attempt to block him. He didn’t finish with a sack on either play but getting these wins early in his career is a good sign.
On the Bucs final play in that series, the second clip in the above video, Bosa shows another tool in his skill set with his ability to win inside after beating an offensive lineman around the edge so often. He gives a quick jab to show an outside move, and the tackle jumps out to block him. Instead, Bosa swipes him away and beats him inside, forces Winston to scramble out of the pocket hits him just after he attempts a desperation throw.
And several times during the game, the combined pass rush of Bosa and Ford collapsed the pocket several times on Winston from the edges. On the Bucs final drive, Ford and Bosa were in the backfield several times affecting the play and preventing Winston from getting any needed chunk yardage by not giving him to step up and look for throws.
Ahkello Witherspoon and the pass defense
While the pass rush may have helped create some of the turnovers that ensued, the pass defense was in the right spot at the right time, and two cornerbacks recorded the first 49ers interceptions by the position since week 16 of the 2017 season.
In particular, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon finished with a PFF coverage grade of 81.7. He was targeted six times and gave two completions for 21 yards, and Winston had a passer rating of 4.9 when he threw at Witherspoon. Last season, Witherspoon struggled early on before finishing the season stronger in coverage, and he picked up right where he left off last season this past Sunday.
Witherspoon had two pass breakups with one coming in tight coverage against Mike Evans and one coming where he made a nice break on a pass intended for the receiver along the sideline where he dove to bat it down. In the first throw in the clip, he doesn’t deflect the pass, but he makes a nice break on Evans’ dig route blankets the receiver at the last second, preventing Evan’s from getting any kind of leverage to catch the pass. Had he caught it, Witherspoon would’ve likely knocked it out of his hands.
There were several other good performances on defense on Sunday against the Buccaneers, but for the most part, the standouts remain on the pass rush and pass defense. As far as pass defense is concerned, it’s very encouraging to see such a dominant performance from a unit that gave up 30 passing touchdowns and only had two interceptions last season. It doesn’t get any easier though on the road this coming weekend against the Bengals.