It’s rare for a team to eclipse 50 sacks in a season as a team. The San Francisco 49ers were dominant in 2019 along the defensive line, and they finished the season with 48 sacks. Looking at their schedule, a handful of blowouts prevented the Niners from playing their starters for four quarters, so, if anything, San Francisco’s sack and pressure rate don’t tell the full story of how dominant the defensive line was a season ago.
Forget 50, will the 49ers reach 60 sacks in 2020? That’s a bold prediction, especially amid a pandemic where some fear there might not even be a season in 2020. The last time a team got to 60 sacks in a season was when the Carolina Panthers did it in 2013. Before the Panthers, it had been another seven years since a team reached 60 sacks. The Chargers and Ravens both did so in 2006. The only other team to do so since 2000 was the Saints when they had 66 sacks in 2000. If it’s happening every seven years, why not the Niners?
How the 49ers can get to 60
Pressure rate is the best predictor for sacks. It’s simple, the teams that get after the quarterback the most have the best chance to bring him down. Crazy, I know. The top five teams in sacks last season: Steelers (54), Panthers (53), Saints (51), Rams 50), 49ers/Vikings (48). Here are the league leaders in pressure rate: Steelers (30.5%), 49ers (28.7), Washington (28.5%), Rams (27.9), Saints (26.4). Washington was tenth in sacks, while the Vikings were 22nd in pressure rate.
Looking back at the teams that eclipsed 60 sacks, the ‘13 Panthers had two players in double-digit sacks in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. The Chargers had two in Shawne Merriman and Shaun Philips. Trevor Pryce and Adalius Thomas both eclipse double-digit sacks, but they also had two other players with 9.5 sacks. Finally, the ‘00 Saints had three players in double-digits.
So, not that you needed a history lesson, but if you have a bunch of good pass rushers, you have a shot at reaching this illustrious number. The 49ers have their work cut out as they need to replace DeForest Buckner’s 7.5 sacks and the pressure he created that allowed his running mates to bring down the quarterback. 6.5 sacks, which is pretty incredible considering the limited amount of snaps Ford played in 2019. I don’t think it’s sustainable to extrapolate Ford’s production, but the way the 49ers are built, it’s difficult to imagine Ford having fewer than ten sacks if he played 50% of the snaps in 2020.
If Ford is the wildcard on the 49ers defensive line, Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead need to be “locks” for double-digit sacks. While that may not sound fair, when you perform at the level those two did in 2019, you set an expectation. Bosa and Armstead’s expectation is excellence. The two combined for 19 sacks last season. Over the final five regular-season games, both edge rushers combined for one sack. Keeping the duo fresher earlier in the season will be critical. If Ronnie Blair starts the season on the PUP list, that’ll put even more pressure on the starters to perform. If the 49ers reach 60 sacks, it’ll be because they a player rise to the occasion.
Fred Warner can’t be fifth on the team in sacks. I expect D.J. Jones to finish with more than two sacks in an expanded role. Newly signed Kerry Hyder will provide a significant upgrade from Sheldon Day. I’m not out on Solomon Thomas, but I’m not penciling him in for five sacks, either.
The schedule and whichever rookie is drafted will play a part. Playing the Giants, Jets, and Dolphins will help. Playing in competitive games instead of blowouts like Carolina, Cincy, and Cleveland will keep the starters on the field. There are so many moving parts with this question, and it’s fun to think about it because there is a realistic chance San Francisco can reach this ridiculous number. Stay healthy, boys.