The 49ers turned in a convincing 24-16 win over their division rival the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday night. The score never felt that close as the Rams connected on a long touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter as the Rams attempted a comeback. Until that point, the 49ers defense held the fourth-ranked offense by Football Outsiders DVOA to just 9 points for more than three and half quarters.
Through six games, the 49ers defense is ranked 11th in Football Outsiders DVOA. The defense has been missing Richard Sherman and Dee Ford since week one, Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas since the first quarter of week two, and Ronald Blair since training camp. In the secondary, they have been playing lower roster back-ups and practice squad guys due to players like Ahkello Witherspoon, Dontae Johnson, and Emmanuel Moseley filtering in and out of the lineup due to nagging injuries here and there.
And going into the Rams game, they were without Kwon Alexander, and safety Jaquiski Tartt left the game with a groin injury. Despite all of that, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has held this unit together through superb coaching, a few different schematic adjustments, and some well-timed blitzes, as well as some key players making big-time stops at the right moments.
Defensive line adjustments
One of the early defensive line adjustments Saleh made in the absence of Bosa, Ford, and Thomas was to move around Javon Kinlaw and Arik Armstead as a pair, and they have had pretty good success in doing so. Moving their two best defensive linemen next to each other creates tough matchups for opposing offensive lines.
Last season, the 49ers created several favorable matchups by moving around their defensive front, especially in the playoffs when Ford, Bosa, Armstead, and Buckner were all healthy. Now, the two best along the front are Armstead and Kinlaw, and for now, that’s just enough to keep them stable as they head into the toughest part of the schedule.
This season, Saleh has had to get creative to scheme up pressure he could normally get with rushing four, and not only do we see a few more blitzes (more on that later), but we also see the front four shift around to get the best matchups.
Week 4 vs. PHI, 14:20 2nd quarter, 3rd-and-8
Here Saleh has Armstead (No. 91) and Kinlaw (No. 99) lined up inside with Armstead as the 4-tech over the right tackle and Kinlaw as the 0-tech nose tackle over the center. On their rush, Armstead works inside to the guard while Kinlaw works the center. K’waun Williams (No. 24) and Fred Warner (No. 54) add to the rush, making it a 6-on-6 situation for the defense versus the offense.
The 49ers get a free rusher and generate some pressure on Wentz when Armstead and Kinlaw eat up three blockers, opening the B-gap for Williams and Warner. Running back Miles Sanders picks up Kwon Alexander’s rush, leaving Warner with a free rush at the quarterback. As a result, Wentz is forced to basically throw it away to avoid the sack even though he still takes a hit.
Week 4 vs. PHI, 7:19 2nd quarter, 3rd-and-6
Here Armstead and Kinlaw are in the same position again, with Kinlaw shaded slightly more toward the A-gap but still basically in a 0-tech spot. Warner is out as a stand-up rusher in the wide-5 tech.
This another way to create 1-on-1 matchups for the defensive line. With five rushers across the front, the offensive line is unable to aid in double team blocks due to an empty backfield.
Usually, a running back could work inside out and pick up Warner’s rush while the line slides to the left to block four with five. But the Eagles don’t have that luxury here, and the 1-on-1 matchups with Armstead and Kinlaw as the number 2 and number 3 defenders on the line of scrimmage leave Warner alone with a slower offensive tackle.
Week 4 vs. PHI, 1:05 3rd quarter, 3rd-and-8
Saleh’s creative blitz got another 1-on-1 matchup for Armstead on the edge and sent Warner flying through the B-gap. This play from start to finish is just a total team effort and great coaching by Saleh to put the players in a position to succeed.
The defense overloads the offensive line’s right side with three down linemen and a linebacker versus three blockers. Kerry Hyder (No. 92) loops around the edge on a long stunt to the opposite B-gap with Armstead and Kinlaw slanting to their left. The offensive line caves the right side in trying to block the rushers as Warner shoots the B-gap cleanly and avoids the running back’s block.
Wentz avoids the rush for the moment but Kinlaw, unable to get into the backfield to pressure him, peels off the blockers when he sees Wentz step through the pocket. Wentz looks to run, but Kinlaw is there, so he forces a pass into the receiver that’s short and batted away by Dontae Johnson (No. 27) diving across to make the play.
Blitz adjustments to the fire zone
Saleh is known for sending fire zone blitzes in passing situations, particularly on third-and-long. This year, he’s made an adjustment to those calls to generate pressure without the normal personnel due to injuries.
Instead of running a traditional fire zone blitz, Saleh aligns the defense in the same look he’s known for sending his fire zone blitzes. Single high coverage with Warner aligned on the line of scrimmage to simulate a possible rusher from his spot. The principle is a “2 under 3 deep hot coverage” overload blitz that’s designed to overload the running back and force the quarterback into a quicker than normal throw.
Week 3 @ NYG, 14:00 2nd quarter, 3rd-and-7
On this blitz adjustment to their fire zone, Warner is looking for anything shallow across to the middle of the field, and Williams over the #2 receiver is the seam/curl/flat defender who will take anything out to the flat or up the seam. The blitz package sends rushers to overload the formation’s weak side to keep the running back in to block, freeing up one rusher to get to the quarterback. The defensive line slants away from the blitz to attract to the blockers.
The free rusher is safety Jimmie Ward, who forces Daniel Jones into a rushed throw to the go route down the left sideline.
Week 3 @ NYG, 7:38 2nd quarter, 2nd-and-9
Later in the quarter, Saleh called it again on a second down throw but with just a slightly different alignment from Warner, who was off the ball.
The result was the same. Ward is the free rusher again. This time the Giants, probably anticipating this was coming when they lined up in 3x1, tagged a quick slant to the weak side in the area vacated by the blitzing defenders. Ward still gets in the quarterback’s face, but Dontae Johnson is able to break up the quick pass.
Scheme adjustments versus the Rams
Another sign that Saleh is doing a great job coaching is coming into the Rams game with some tendency breakers knowing the Rams would look to exploit their third and long blitz packages. Last season, Saleh didn’t really adjust a lot, and it bit them in the super bowl with predictable coverages.
Week 6 vs. LA Rams, 10:08 1st quarter, 3rd-and-8
The Rams shift into a 3x1 formation with the running back offset to the weak side. The 49ers show their standard pressure look on 4th down with the six on the line of scrimmage with the possible blitz coming from Dre Greenlaw and Jimmie Ward. The Rams run two routes right at Warner, who drops underneath like he normally does on the 3rd down blitz. Except the 49ers don’t blitz.
The rest of the defense drops into a cover-3 buzz coverage behind a four-man rush. Ward sprints from the line of scrimmage looking specifically for the deep crosser and finds Kupp as Goff throws. Goff likely predetermined this throw based on the pressure look and stayed with it. He overthrows Kupp because there is no window to throw into.
Week 6 vs. LA Rams, 5:35 1st quarter, 3rd-and-8
On the next drive, the Rams faced another 3rd-and-8 situation and made another adjustment to their play calling to take advantage of the void in the defense.
Knowing that Warner would play the shallow cross, the Rams reran Kupp into his zone so he couldn’t drop outside the hash. The route held him down the hash. The Rams also ran a flat route against the star defender, knowing he’d travel with him to the flat. And he did. This left the curl zone open and cornerback Jason Verrett (No. 22) 1-on-1 with tight end Gerald Everett. Goff isn’t even throwing yet to Everett, and Verrett is already driving on the route.
The pass gets there as Verrett knocks it away. Verrett made one of several plays in the game, too (more on that later).
Week 6 vs. LA Rams, 8:57 4th quarter, 3rd-and-6
Later in the fourth quarter, with the Rams backed up against their own goal line, the 49ers showed the same look again, and the Rams sent a shallow crosser again to see if they could take advantage of a potential void in the zone.
The 49ers are aligned the same again, showing possible blitz, but they still don’t send any extra rushers. The defenders drop into cover-3 buzz zones again and take away Goff’s underneath routes so that he’s forced to come off the reads and throw down the sideline 1-on-1 Robert Woods against Moseley. Moseley breaks up the pass.
These are just some of the schematic adjustments defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has deployed to generate pressure and confuse opposing quarterbacks. The tendency breakers are on film now, and opposing offenses will have to work harder to expose any kind of adjustments Saleh has made as they won’t be sure if they’re getting a blitz or not. Combined with the front four adjustments, the defense should feel pretty good going into this tough stretch games with Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, Saints, Rams (again), Bills.