When you look at which players are missing from the San Francisco 49ers’ defense, you might mistake it for a portion of the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster. Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, and K’Waun Williams are all sidelined with various injuries.
Despite the rash of injuries, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh still has the unit playing strong. San Francisco sits fifth in total yards allowed per game at 321.0. It’s impressive that despite missing Sherman, Williams, Moseley, and Ahkello Witherspoon for the secondary, the team is fifth in passing yards allowed per contest. The emergence of Jason Verrett has immensely helped, but it remains to be seen if the veteran can sustain this level of play over an extended period.
The 49ers have held opposing quarterbacks in check in their three losses, sans the short-lived Brian Allen experiment where Ryan Fitzpatrick looked like the second-coming of Joe Montana during the first half. The Niners’ offense cost them against the Philadelphia Eagles, with Nick Mullens self-combusting and gifting Philly a pick-six, which was the game’s difference.
San Francisco sits in the top 10 in net yards allowed per passing play and the percentage of opposing drives that end up in scores (39.7%). The 49ers’ linebackers have played a significant role in coverage. Pro Football Focus has Fred Warner as the third-best linebacker in the league while in coverage, with Dre Greenlaw coming in at No. 10. The usually reliable Kwon Alexander has struggled against the pass, but that is something Saleh is confident will turn around once Alexander is back from injury.
The Niners are also holding up well against the run, ranking 10th in rushing yards allowed per game and eighth in rushing yards per attempt at 4.1. Arik Armstead and the surprising Kevin Givens lead the defense against the run in PFF grades, which is a testament to San Francisco’s defensive line depth, something general manager John Lynch has focused on since taking over in 2017.
Football Outsiders has the 49ers ranked No. 11 in defensive DVOA, but this is also a result of playing the fourth-softest schedule. Beating the New York Jets and New York Giants and their anemic offenses in back-to-back weeks certainly helps the numbers, but with San Francisco in the middle of the part of its schedule, the defense will have to improve at finishing sacks.
Without Bosa and Ford in the lineup, Saleh has been dialing up more blitzes. The Niners relied on their dominant defensive line to get to opposing QBs last season. Still, without the two pass-rushing demons, the unit has been forced to use players from various positions to get pressures.
San Francisco is blitzing 32.9% of the time, up exactly 12% from 2019. The added blitzing has resulted in the 49ers ranking fourth in the percentage of time the opposing QB is being pressured at 12.6% and fifth in QB pressures.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t resulted in extra sacks. The Niners have just 10 sacks through six games, half of what they had through six contests last season. Armstead is getting extra attention this year without Bosa, Ford, and the departed DeForest Buckner. The only other defensive lineman who has been effective in finishing plays this season is Kerry Hyder.
Still, it is a pleasant surprise to see the defense playing statistically well despite missing the high-end talent. The unit held up well against the Los Angeles Rams last week, and if the 49ers want to have any hope of making the postseason, they will need a similar effort over the following six weeks.
What are your thoughts on how San Francisco’s defense has looked so far this season? Are you happy with the job Saleh has done with all of the injuries?