The box score from the Bengals game would indicate the 49ers played poorly on defense. Joe Burrow threw for 348 yards and had over ten yards per attempt. Tee Higgins had 114 yards, and Cincinnati hit a few explosive plays.
That ignores the Bengals going 4-for-13 on third down, only rushing for 3.3 yards per carry, and the 49ers sacking them five times. As a result, the Bengals finished the game with a negative EPA per play on late downs, with a below-average success rate for the game.
I thought it was one of DeMeco Ryans’ best-coached games yet. They attempted to cover the Bengals wideouts in man coverage, and that didn’t work. But, once the 49ers get to third down, Ryans has been aggressive when it comes to blitzing and playing man coverage behind it.
Ryans adjusted instead of being hard-headed and running something that you know wouldn’t work. San Francisco ran 19 Cover-2 snaps against Cincinnati. That’s more than they ran in their previous 12 games combined. The goal was to keep everything in front of you and make Burrow beat you underneath.
In the video below, I discuss Azeez Al-Shaair taking his game to another level and how his football IQ is equally impressive as his athleticism and big hits. Also, how D.J. Jones continues to make plays, with an Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa pass rush sprinkled in.
The focal point of the video is one blitz that stood out on third down. K’Waun Williams's third-down sack killed a Bengals drive when they were at midfield. San Francisco was up 20-13 and had just gone three-and-out after the Bengals just scored a touchdown. It’s 3rd & 5 from Cincy’s 49, and they had already connected on a 13-yard pass on the drive.
The 49ers are pretty cut and dry when it comes to blitzing. They usually send five rushers and play man coverage behind it. As we mentioned, man coverage wasn’t an option against the Bengals.
So, how would the defense counter? With a “creeper” blitz. That’s when you blitz someone from the second level, with one of your defensive linemen dropping back in coverage. You still rush four players, but it gives the illusion to the quarterback that there’s an extra rusher, and he has to get rid of the ball quickly. The 49ers ran two creeper blitzes Sunday, which was one more than they had run all season.
The breakdown of the creeper blitz starts at 5:19 below:
It was encouraging to see Ryans adjust and go against the grain. Too often, we see coaches “stick to what they know,” even when a situation isn’t working. That’s how the Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley gives up 40+ points to the Chiefs twice a year.
Thankfully, for the 49ers, Ryans swallowed his ego and did what was best for the defense. That’s an excellent sign for his future, as he passed the test against a difficult matchup in the Bengals