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49ers vs Steelers defensive film review: Continued improvement a recipe for success

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The 49ers’ defense had their best game of the season against Pittsburgh in testing circumstances

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Home openers are not supposed to age you like that. Home openers against a first-time starter at quarterback of an 0-2 football team are definitely not supposed to cause the heart palpitations many 49ers fans will have felt on Sunday. However, during an offensive performance that was a saga of the promising and the maddening, the defense continued its 2019 surge.

It has been a long time since we saw a defensive performance so complete: A pass rush so in sync with coverage behind; a game plan to nullify the opponent’s most dangerous threats; and play-calling that bamboozled a young quarterback and his experienced offensive line. Robert Saleh’s defense looks increasingly dominant, one that has developed alongside its co-ordinator and is a true reflection of him. There are still levels for them to attain, but early on, the signs are extremely promising.

Interior run defense steps up

Against Tampa Bay, the 49ers’ interior run defense was somewhat concerning. Adjustments were made to confuse blocking assignments, but the 49ers’ interior defensive linemen struggled in the face of the double teams coming their way. They improved in Cincinnati, but that seemed as much a product of the Bengals’ offensive line issues as it was a notable improvement from the 49ers.

On Sunday, however, we saw the interior run defense take a clear step up. Both D.J. Jones and Deforest Buckner continued to be aggressive coming off the ball, but they were notably more consistent with their leverage. They repeatedly got lower than the players attempting to double team them, holding their ground much more effectively. Furthermore, the second level players (especially the linebackers) were more decisive triggering downhill. This had the effect of forcing offensive linemen off the double teams to engage them.

This is a phenomenal rep from Buckner and Jones. Pittsburgh attempts to double team them both, but they are unmoved. They both drop their hips, establishing a powerful, linear position lower than the offensive linemen trying to move them. Buckner tosses the centre off him. Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner, and Jaquiski Tartt step up into their gaps quickly as well. Jones holds off Maurkice Pouncey to make the stop.

The interior run defense was also helped by the rest of the team’s ability to set an edge, containing runners. Arik Armstead has only become a more potent edge setter from a wide-9 alignment, and Ronald Blair continues to beat up tight-ends.

Armstead shows his power here, re-positioning Vance McDonald right into Ramon Foster and James Conner’s paths. Jones also blasts Pouncey into the backfield which actually takes Conner out.

The 49ers’ execution in the run game would ultimately prove crucial, as it created a game-changing play late in the fourth quarter after the 49ers’ fifth turnover.

On Armstead’s game-changing fumble, multiple 49ers players executed their roles brilliantly. Seeing David DeCastro pulling, Armstead wrong-arms him, disrupting his path outside. Meanwhile, Alexander instantly recognises and reacts to the pulling interior linemen, flowing rapidly over the top to get outside as a force defender. Tartt also does extremely well, managing to get outside tight-end Zach Gentry despite having inside leverage to become another force defender. Tartt and Alexander force Conner to cut back into Armstead, who has the wherewithal to punch the ball out. Phenomenal team defense.

Pass rush and coverage complement each other perfectly

During the defense’s more barren years, Robert Saleh often mentioned the need for complementary pass rush and coverage. On Sunday, we saw the realisation of that ambition. Saleh mixed up his coverages as much as he needed to and his players’ execution was largely absolutely superb. The 49ers’ completely shut down the Steelers’ offense for large parts of Sunday’s match, locking down receivers and hassling Mason Rudolph in the pocket. Armstead was particularly disruptive, whilst Nick Bosa dominated Alejandro Villanueva. Behind them, the coverage was mostly extremely sound.

The 49ers are likely playing a red zone-specific split field, matchup zone coverage here. In front, they use a 4-man rush but twist Buckner over the top of Armstead inside. The coverage does a brilliant job locking down the Steelers’ receivers. Ahkello Witherspoon shows patient feet to shut James Washington down; Tartt and K’waun Williams bracket Vance McDonald; Fred Warner carries JuJu Smith-Schuster across the formation before getting help from Tarvarius Moore; Richard Sherman locks up Diontae Johnson. Rudolph cannot find an open receiver. Concurrently, the superb Armstead has caused pressure up the middle whilst Nick Bosa has sat Alejandro Villanueva down before help could arrive. Rudolph is forced up into the clutches of DeForest Buckner.

A closer view of the carnage surrounding Rudolph. Bosa blasts Villanueva before DeCastro arrives to help whilst Armstead gets to work on Pouncey. Rudolph wanted to throw to Smith-Schuster, but Warner covered him well. He moved to McDonald but was quickly pressured by Armstead.

The 49ers are playing cover 3 here. Richard Sherman does a tremendous job reading the play, recognising the curl-flat route combination. His patience and length are on display to break up with a pass for Smith-Schuster. Armstead’s pressure off the edge shouldn’t be ignored, however. His long-arm forces the right tackle back into Rudolph’s lap, forcing a wobbly, weak and inaccurate throw.

K’Waun Williams’ pick was another great display of the 49ers’ pass rush and coverage being in sync. The 49ers were playing cover 6. The Steelers could have had Smith-Schuster open on the high-low stretch in the middle, but Warner may have been in throwing lane. In any case, Buckner had blasted Ramon Foster into Rudolph’s lap (Buckner’s speed to power has improved noticeably), and Dee Ford had raced around the corner. This forced Rudolph towards Armstead who flushed him out the pocket. K’waun Williams showed good discipline not to over-chase the drag route that crossed his face earlier in the down, ensuring he was able to rob Rudolph’s throw on the run to Smith-Schuster. Tartt had also bought Smith-Schuster from his split-field safety spot, and he too likely would have picked the throw off had Williams not been there.

The defense comes through in the clutch

Nowhere were the 49ers’ coverage and pass rush more important than on the final drive as the Steelers sought to ruin the 49ers’ party. On that last drive, however, as well as working in unison on one play, they bailed the other out on one occasion each.

On the first play of the drive, the 49ers are playing cover 6. The Steelers make a smart play call, flooding the cover 2 side with all five of their receivers. The pressure is crucial in forcing Rudolph away from his receivers, and he’s forced to throw the ball away. The end-tackle stunt works brilliantly, with Ford drawing the tackle inside with Armstead working over the top. Ford flushed Rudolph into Armstead who chased him away from his receivers.

On the third play of the drive, the 49ers play cover 1, after indicating they would play a split field, zone coverage. In this play, the coverage and pass rush are in perfect sync. The defensive backs and linebackers blanket the Steelers’ receivers whilst the defensive line gets to work.

Buckner gets the initial push here. Bosa gets right underneath and floors Villanueva meanwhile (!) and almost sacks Rudolph. Buckner can get back into the play however and gets the sack.

On the final play of the drive, the 49ers’ coverage bails out the pass rush, as Rudolph has plenty of time to throw. The 49ers play quarters and once again lock up the Steelers’ receiving options. With the switch release to the field, the number one and two receivers switch. Alexander gains good depth to help bracket the deep over route between him and the safeties. Tartt meanwhile maintains his position very well, enabling him to rob an in-breaking route of the new number one receiver. Rudolph attempts to throw the deep dig, perhaps expecting Tartt would have been drawn out of position by the deep over route. That hope was misplaced, and the pass break-up sealed the game for the 49ers.

Other notes

  • Robert Saleh’s game-planning and play-calling continue to impress. As well as playing lots of man coverage this week, Saleh mixed in a variety of zone looks as well as well timed simulated pressures and fire zone blitzes. Pittsburgh struggled to pick them up and were constantly reacting to the 49ers’ defense when they wanted to be dictating to them.
  • Jason Verrett’s struggles in his first competitive action were noteworthy, though they shouldn’t all be pinned on him. The touchdown wasn’t a good play for Verrett, as he was caught peeking into the backfield when he didn’t have control of the receiver. However, on the previous play, Verrett was expecting help from Tarvarius Moore over the top. The 49ers were in their Reno check, and Verrett was supposed to play with outside leverage. Against post routes from number one, with two running a deep over route, Moore needed to give Verrett help. Moore has struggled at times, but certainly shouldn’t be given up on at this point. Now is the time to make mistakes.
  • Kwon Alexander continues to look like a phenomenal addition. His sideline to sideline speed and play recognition catch the eye multiple times a game and his understanding of his role within the scheme is highly impressive given his rehab-shortened offseason program.
  • Ahkello Witherspoon’s absence is a blow. He and Richard Sherman have both been superb so far. Having entered the season with concerns the 49ers may not have a clear number one corner for the wrong reasons, to date the team has had two players playing like number one corners. Verrett’s struggles may have opened the door to former UDFA Emmanuel Moseley to start in Witherspoon’s place. So far, Moseley hasn’t looked out of place on the field. His speed and aggression will serve him well.
  • K’Waun Williams had a bounce-back game. His interception was an exclamation point on it. Williams continues to be a high calibre nickel corner. Along with Jaquiski Tartt, who has flown under the radar but has been highly impressive, the 49ers secondary has more than held up its end of the bargain this campaign. The only question mark is at the second safety spot.