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Ryans: I think Arik was able to make a lot more plays inside this past week

DeMeco Ryans spotlights Arik Armstead and Talanoa Hufanga

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at San Francisco 49ers Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers are gearing up for their second showdown against the Arizona Cardinals.

DeMeco Ryans’ defense held Arizona to a season-low in points scored and total yards during their Week 5 matchup. Then, after the bye, they stumbled guarding Michael Pittman Jr at home. But the Niners looked like a competent football team last week. They were notably led by Jimmy Garoppolo’s homecoming heroics. The offensive line kept Garoppolo clean and tormented the Bears’ defensive line.

Ryans talked about Armstead moving inside on base downs below.

Is keeping Armstead inside somewhat a function of DT Javon Kinlaw not being available?

“Yeah, moving Armstead inside, the thing about him is he’s done it before and he’s very good inside as well. And we know his dominance on the edge. Nobody really wants to run the ball to Arik’s side when he’s on the edge and now putting him inside, I think Arik was able to make a lot more plays inside this past week, putting him inside. So, he can be a productive playmaker for us inside. And with Kinlaw, I think not having Kinlaw does attribute to that, putting Arik inside. But Arik has done fantastic. He did a good job last week and he’ll continue to get better the more reps he gets inside.”

Arik Armstead’s natural position has always been defensive tackle. I personally undervalued Armstead’s value as an edge rusher because of his lack of ability to close as a pass-rusher. But he has shown he can dominate against tight ends and be a force in the run game.

Playing Armstead at defensive tackle puts pressure on Arden Key and Samson Ebukam. Last week, San Francisco’s defense gave up five carries of 14 yards or more. That’s not bad considering that Chicago ran the ball 36 times. Outside of Fields’ 22-yard rushing touchdown, Armstead was a key force in preventing explosive runs. Armstead also had a neutral zone infraction in the first quarter.

Armstead bullies James Daniels in the first clip and performs a swift swim move to secure the tackle for a loss. Then, you see Armstead use his 6-foot 7-inch frame to long-arm Larry Bloom to make a play from the backside of the zone run. Zach Kerr got penetration in the second play, and Ryans emphasized that Thursday.

Can you explain the challenge that defensive tackles in a wide-nine scheme have when it is stretched out a little bit with the ends? I know one of the reasons you guys like Kinlaw so much is because of how big and strong he was in that situation. But what is the challenge for those guys behind him and for Armstead on the inside in the wide-nine?

“Yeah. For the guys inside, it’s all about penetrating. It’s about our guys just playing as best we can, playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. So you want quick guys, like D.J. Jones who can penetrate or you get longer guys like, Kinlaw, Arik who can play inside, can stretch out and make plays sideline to sideline.”

D.J. Jones displayed agility and power against the run and pass against the Bears last week. Armstead and Jones will torture offensive lines to come. The defensive line will reach elite levels if Ebukam and Key can take the next step.

Ryans answered questions on how the secondary stepped up against the deep pass against Chicago.

Did they surprise you by not going deep very often? I think there were only two deep balls? It seemed like you guys were anticipating a little bit more than that.

“Yeah. We anticipated them throwing deep for sure, because they had the highest percentage of deep balls going into that game. The Bears had the highest percentage of deep balls in the NFL, so we assumed they would go deep and they didn’t.”

San Francisco’s secondary has been vulnerable against the deep pass all season. However, that came to a halt last week—as the 49ers sharpened up against deep throws. Talanoa Hufanga, Fifth-round pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, held up well after I questioned his ball skills before the game.

DeMeco Ryans closed the middle of the field in the three plays above. In the first clip, the Niners have Hufanga as the MOFC player in Cover 3. Emmanuel Moseley gets beat inside, and Bears quarterback Justin Fields misses Marquise Goodwin.

The second play might have been my favorite wrinkle of the game. This was one of my 30 plays Niners fans will love or shove, but it all changes when you watch the coach's angle. Jimmie Ward and Hufanga show a two-high shell pre-snap. Next, Ward picks up the tight end while Hufanga closes the middle of the field.

Ryans dialed up a successful Bear front Cover 1 blitz. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles appears to have man-integrity on the running back, while K’Waun Williams blitzes and Fred Warner plays as the low-hole defender. Moseley and Hufanga are both somewhat out of position but Fields has an errant throw that Hufanga should have made him pay for.

Josh Norman is freelancing in the third clip as no one threatens him vertical in this Cover 3 look. Tavon Wilson is the MOFC player and gets beat inside but recovers with the help of Norman. The turnover sealed the game, and San Francisco lined up in victory formation (kneeled.)

Ryans speaks on Hufanga’s first NFL start:

How big of a step was that for S Talanoa Hufanga to play all 70 snaps and what was your evaluation of how he did?

“Yeah, his first start. I thought Huf did good. First start, getting that extensive amount of time in there. I thought he communicated really well. He flew around, made some plays for us and Huf is just going to continue to get better and better. He’s a great communicator, really smart player, and he plays the game with a passion and energy that’s contagious to others.”

Conclusion

The 49er defense still has the chance to be elite. I still think Deoomodre Lenoir should get in-game reps, but the secondary took a step forward as a whole last week. They will have to keep up the good work with an attacking Arizona offense coming to Levi’s Stadium Sunday.

General Manager John Lynch has trusted the “pressure over coverage” conceept. He will need more out of this edge group for this defense to be great. The scrutiny has been focused on the secondary (well earned.) However, the edge group is expected to perform at a higher level than the secondary. There should be repercussions if San Francisco misses the playoffs.

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Is this a potential top-5 defense?

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