Sunday’s win over the New York Jets came at a steep cost. While improving their record to 1-1 and getting back on track, the 49ers might have regressed enough to keep their chances at a repeat playoff run very low if not diminished entirely. The good news is the playoff format this year lets a seventh team sneak in. The bad news is the 49ers could potentially make a playoff run without the best player on their defense, Nick Bosa.
Bosa tore his ACL in the first quarter and will miss the rest of the season. Any playoff chances they currently have rest on the shoulders of back-up quarterback Nick Mullens, who will be tasked with keeping the offense afloat as he’ll more than likely take over for Jimmy Garoppolo (high ankle sprain. Garoppolo led the 49ers on a last-minute touchdown drive in the second half before not returning in the second half with an ankle injury he sustained in the first quarter as well.
The 49ers already entered the game without Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, George Kittle, and Deebo Samuel. And next week versus the Giants, also at Metlife Stadium, they’ll be without Garoppolo, Bosa, Solomon Thomas (ACL tear), Tevin Coleman, and Raheem Mostert, who suffered an MCL sprain. The turf potentially claimed several casualties on the Jets as well, with players going down on what seemed like every series.
While winning the game came at a great cost, the defensive depth was tested and saw significant action and rose to the challenge. In addition, a few key players also contributed in big ways to combine to hold the Jets under 200 yards until garbage time.
Impactful players on defense
If there was ever a time where Arik Armstead needed to prove his new contract is worth it, the time is now. And he came through for the defense, recording five pressures (one sack, two hits, two hurries) and batted a key pass out of the air.
On his sack, he’s lined up in a wide-5 technique outside the right tackle. His sole purpose being that wide is to get enough speed to burst around the edge and disrupt the pass. On his rush, he sets up his blocker by getting his arms up to simulate engagement. The blocker engages Armstead by shooting his arms up into his shoulders. Once he does this, Armstead has won the rep.
Armstead has tremendous reach, and essentially bench presses the blocker backward before pinning his outside arm and ripping through into the backfield to sack Sam Darnold. Later in the game, he batted a pass down on third-and-9 with the Jets near midfield, stalling another Jets drive.
The 49ers are showing a pressure look with seven defenders across the line of scrimmage. However, they only rush five with their fire zone blitz while defenders bailout to cover the low hole and low flat to the trips side.
The Jets are running “Lambeau,” a quick throw to a trips formation to the #3 receiver in the flat to get quick yards. Armstead is lined up to the trips side and peels off his rush to drop to the low flat as Darnold attempts a throw to the quick flat route and bats the pass down.
I’ve written about Fred Warner at least once or twice since his rookie season. He continually pops off the film with his coverage ability and his ability to be virtually unblockable in the run game. And this game was no different. He led the defense with 12 tackles (nine solo) and three stops.
Warner’s instincts and tracking ability in the run game are elite. He has the ability to fight off blocks and fight through blocks and knife through narrow gaps into the backfield to make tackles. Early in the second quarter, he shows his tracking ability by tracking down the runner from the backside. His pursuit is phenomenal on the play as he navigates through traffic to make the stop.
In the second and third clips of the cut-up above, Warner shows how he fights through blocks and is unblockable. He sheds the blocker in the second clip, regains his balance, and fights to make the stop. Had he been blown off the ball and not recovered or lost his balance, Frank Gore likely would’ve run for six.
Defensive linemen D.J. Jones, Kerry Hyder Jr., and Kevin Givens
The 49ers started the game without Dee Ford. Then in the span of three plays on the Jets’ second offensive drive of the first quarter, the defense lost Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas to torn ACLs. The line took a hit, but the guys who filled in picked up the slack quite nicely and held it down, making key stops and stalling Jets’ offensive drives.
D.J. Jones is back this season after missing the rest of last season due to a high ankle sprain in week 14. His presence was felt immediately in this game, as he knifed through the A-gap from a shade 2i-technique over the opposite side guard. He slanted across the center’s face and executed a nice rip move to get into the backfield to drop Gore for a 2-yard loss.
In the second clip, he gets perpendicular to the scrimmage line and doesn’t allow the blocker to attack his blocking surface as he blows up his gap to make the stop.
Back-ups Kerry Hyder Jr. and Kevin Givens also turned in very solid performances as they saw an uptick in snaps due to the injuries sustained earlier.
On one play, both Givens and Hyder combined to make a stop for no gain when they both caused chaos in their gaps and tossed blockers aside. Givens starts off the disruption by two-gapping and engaging the blocker head-on before he tosses him aside and gets into the B-gap to meet Gore. Hyder reduces his blocking surface by getting perpendicular to the line and not allowing the right guard to lock on to him.
Shanahan’s gameplan - attack the perimeter with the run game
The 49ers opened the game with a long 75-yard touchdown run by running by attacking the edge of the Jets defense. They likely knew they would not be able to run between the tackles in any way against a very stout Jets interior defense. This is likely the result of good film study by Shanahan of the Jets defense over the last season.
In 2019, the Jets gave up 15.25 yards per carry on outside edge runs that went for 10 or more yards (24 attempts). Despite those carries, the Jets defense still ranked number two last season against the run in Football Outsiders DVOA and is currently ranked number three against the run this season. But whether or not the Jets are ranked high made no difference for how Shanahan attacked them.
The bulk of the rushing yards came on just three carries, but they were all runs designed to attack the edges. The 49ers would’ve had three total rushing attempts that went for 50+ yards were it not for a holding penalty that nullified another stretch zone run to the edge.
In particular, the Jets really struggled with the Ravens shifts and motions last season, and it’s here where Shanahan likely got some inspiration for the open running play. Defensive alignments under Gregg Williams (Jets defensive coordinator) are a bit more condensed than other teams as they will typically find ways to get eight in the box.
The use of shifts pre-snap and motion-at-the-snap shifts defenders’ assignments on the fly and makes it more difficult to play their run fits. The Ravens are running an arc zone read with a fly motion from Willie Snead to get an extra blocker to the play side. The Ravens outnumber the Jets at the point of attack, and Lamar Jackson goes for 29 yards on the outside.
Obviously, the 49ers under Shanahan do not run the zone read, so they have to find other ways to even up the front they are blocking to the play side. Shanahan did this on the game’s opening play with a wide zone toss with fly motion to the play side.
The 49ers are running “toss 18 force,” which is a toss run to the right. Force tells the fullback to block the first force defender outside the tight end that comes in to force the running back inside. The Jets have six defenders to the play side for the 49ers, five stationary blockers but the use of a fly motion at the snap adds the sixth blocker in.
The sixth defender they have to worry about is the safety coming down into the box as the run hits the edge. Kendrick Bourne has the key block on this play on the safety. You can hear Alex Gibbs coaching point in the clip below when he says, “we don’t block corners in this league, we block safeties.”
Bourne is “in the briar patch,” throwing the key block that springs Raheem Mostert for a long 75-yard touchdown run. Later in the game, the 49ers came back to the same play but without the jet motion, and the result was the same.
The Jets came out in a stacked box again but this time elected to put three safeties deep instead of two. It’s not clear why but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has a history of giving up large amounts of space to account for either the pass or the run, never both, and never in obvious situations (more on that in a bit).
The 49ers are running the same “toss 18 force” as the first touchdown run, just without the jet motion this time, but the Jets defense is outmaneuvered before the play even begins. The defense sends three safeties deep on second-and-10, leaving their box vulnerable to the run, especially with two backs.
The 49ers formation gives them one extra blocker to lead Mostert downfield toward the safeties, and all Mostert has to do is make one guy miss, and it’s a touchdown...until it’s called back for holding by Mike McGlinchey.
However, the damage was already done, and the 49ers used the Jets aggressiveness to set the edge and fast flow to an out of the box run on a couple more run plays. Gregg Williams is nothing if not predictable, and Shanahan knew this, calling the same toss force run on third-and-31.
The Jets scheme it up well enough and get to the edge, forcing McKinnon to bend back inside to the open space. The play works because Gregg Williams likes his safeties 20 yards deep pre-snap for some reason, and the safety is late coming down to fill as a result.
He tries to fit as the alley defender. Still, receiver Brandon Aiyuk is already there to throw a block (remember “we make corners tackle, not safeties”?) on the safety as the corner cannot make the tackle in the hole.
Jordan Reed’s big day
Jordan Reed had no problem filling in for the injured George Kittle as Garoppolo’s number one receiving option in the red zone and led all 49ers pass catchers on Sunday with seven receptions, totaling 50 yards and two touchdowns.
Reed is an underrated receiver in the slot or out wide. He caught a few touchdown passes as the widest receiver in the formation in the red zone when he previously played for Shanahan in 2013 so he certainly has the versatility Shanahan looks for. Whether Shanahan will use him again that in the red zone is less clear but I would not be surprised.
On Sunday against the Jets, he caught his two touchdown passes on the same stick/knife route where he created enough separation to get open on the first one and made a nice contested catch on the second one. This might be a problem for defenses going forward when Kittle comes back, having two dangerous tight end targets, which are both receiving threats.
Sometimes winning comes at a cost, and now the 49ers must retool and readjust their gameplans in the coming weeks. They’ll have a few more easy tests with the Giants, Eagles, and Dolphins coming up before they get to a seven-week gauntlet where they’ll face the Rams twice, Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, Saints, and Bills.
Anything can happen, but after week two, at least two of these teams (Saints and Seahawks) suddenly look very beatable after the Saints came out flat for the last three quarters against the Raiders on Monday night and the Seahawks suffered two season-ending injuries to key players on their defense. There’s no reason to stress just yet.
And if this past Sunday is any indication, it feels like Shanahan and the 49ers offense are just getting started. That’s a good thing too because they’ll likely need to carry the defense for a bit.