We’re a little more than a month away from 49ers training camp. The focus will be on Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance, and the rollercoaster known as the 49ers quarterback situation — and for a good reason.
It’s assumed that the offense will improve dramatically because of health. It’s also assumed that the defense would continue its stellar play.
During the past two seasons, the 49ers' defense finished fourth in yards per drive and success rate. Robert Saleh’s unit finished first in the league last year with the fewest missed tackles in the NFL. Finally, it wasn’t often they gave up the big play. The Niners’ defenses in ‘19 and ‘20 were fourth and sixth in allowing passing plays of 20 yards or more.
There is a new sheriff in town, and it doesn’t sound like DeMeco Ryans is going to be near the bottom of the NFL when it comes to blitz rate like his old boss was.
Ryans gave your typical coaching cliches’ during his first presser with the media earlier this month. He wants the 49ers' defense to be “fast, attacking, and aggressive.” Ryans stated that the scheme would have some wrinkles of his own, calling hit his brand of football.
We’ll only have the chance to see the on the field result or how what happens on the field evolves. We’ll miss out on the process, where Ryans forms relationships with the players, coaches, who he leans on for help, and how he learns on the fly.
We’ll see front and center how fiery, energetic, or subdued Ryans is. Remember, Ryans retired as recently as 2015. He’ll be 37 come Week 1, so excitement feels inevitable from the former All-Pro middle linebacker. That trait might be where the similarities to Saleh end.
Setting a reasonable bar
There will be give and take with Ryans calling the plays. A more aggressive defense could mean more missed tackles, which means more big plays given up.
But, when you apply pressure and force the offensive into mistakes, that results in more turnovers and punting situations that get your defense off the field.
To Saleh’s credit toward the end of his tenure, specifically in 2019, there wasn’t this dire need to blitz. When your Jimmy’s and Joe’s are better, you can sit back and play coverage, knowing that your front four will handle business. That strategy worked.
Expecting Ryans to come in and fix what isn’t broke would be counterproductive. Ignoring that he’s a first-time play-caller and thinking the 49ers won’t skip a beat doesn’t feel right, either.
Instead of setting a reasonable bar, let me ask you this: which area where the 49ers have excelled during the past two seasons do you see the defense taking a bit of a tumble? To me, this one is easy.
Saleh worked magic on third downs. He’d put together his most exotic pressure packages while taking advantage of his speed and versatility on defense. San Francisco was a defense that got creative and kept offenses off balance on third downs.
In 2019, the defense allowed offenses to convert only 33% of the time, which was good for second in the NFL. Last season, without a dominant pass-rusher, the Niners held offenses to 35.5% on third downs, which was third best in the league.
Those numbers will be the most difficult to replicate, because you can’t copy those situations, the personnel, or the timing of Saleh’s calls for what Ryans will see in 2021. So, I’m going third downs. What’s your answer?