San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh spoke to the media Thursday afternoon about his defensive line and where the 49ers must improve the most on defense to make a playoff run. Saleh started by explaining the reasons for a slow start production-wise from Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw:
“I’ll start with Kinlaw. Obviously, when you get one-on-one opportunities in this league, you’re not going to get very many, especially in a true passing situation. First and second down, a lot of teams give us a lot of play action, hard sets, which is a difficult transition for a rookie to make, especially. So, while it may look like he has a one-on-one set or one-on-one opportunity, it could be a play action where he’s got to transfer from a run mentality to a pass mentality, which takes time.
It takes time, takes field, takes an understanding for what’s happening. Along those lines, when he does get his one-on-ones, he does have to win. He has had some wins. I believe he’s, I mean, it’s amongst rookies so far this season, I think I read somewhere that he’s in the top five with regards to pressures from defensive lineman. He’s progressing along well and I do believe that once things start to click, and they are, because he’s showed up a step late to the party when I think [CB] K’Waun [Williams] had a sack. He had [Philadelphia Eagles QB] Carson [Wentz] in his grasp, Carson Wentz. Carson got away from him.
He was in a foot race with [Green Bay Packers QB] Aaron Rogers on Thursday. So, he’s had his opportunities and those are things that he’s going to learn.
Kinlaw has come “close” several times this season to bringing down the quarterback. It sounds like Saleh is saying he wants Kinlaw to play/process faster. As a rookie, this is expected. It may not show up in the stat sheet, but Kinlaw is progressing, and you can see him starting to layer moves together. Instead of overpowering everyone he faces, Kinlaw is figuring out ways to win with his hands.
It’s not helping that Kinlaw is forced to rush from the edge on third downs as the Niners don’t have any other capable bodies at the position. There are still too many instances where he doesn’t pick “half a man” and runs directly into the offensive lineman. If you watch the best defensive linemen in the NFL, you’ll notice they all pick a side, have a plan of attack, and have a counter in case Plan A doesn’t work.
Here is an example from the Packers game where Kinlaw doesn’t do any of the three tips mentioned above to win as a pass rusher. Kinlaw is rushing from the edge on the right side of the defense:
What you see above and not staying square against double teams have gotten Kinlaw in trouble this season, and it showed up against Green Bay. For the rookie, it’s all about consistency.
Saleh mentioned how Kinlaw is top-5 in pressures among rookies. While that’s true, referencing totals ignores how much a player wins on a per-snap basis. Using PFF’s “pass-rushing productivity,” Kinlaw is outside of the top-50 for defensive tackles. It’ll be interesting to see Kinlaw’s first-half splits and second-half splits as a pass rusher once the season is over. That’ll tell us how much he improved as a rookie.