The San Francisco 49ers have had one of the best defenses in the NFL over the past two seasons. In 2019, the Niners’ defense was dominant, finishing second in rushing yards per game, fourth in total yards, and 14th in passing yards per game. Football Outsiders had the 49ers seventh in DVOA for the 2019 campaign.
Despite injuries to Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman, and the departure of All-Pro defensive lineman, San Francisco’s defense still performed well under former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
The 49ers finished in the top half of the NFL in yards allowed per game in 2020. The defense was a big reason why the team was able to hang in the playoff race even with all of the injuries.
Saleh was hired by the New York Jets to be their new head coach, but Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t wait long to name his replacement.
San Francisco hired linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans to oversee the defense next season. Ryans was a part of Shanahan’s original hires in 2017, initially joining the team as a defensive quality control coach before taking over the linebacking group.
Ryans had a ton of success during his playing days. He won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2006, was a first-team All-Pro the following season was named to two Pro Bowls before retiring following the 2015 season.
The new defensive coordinator laid out his vision for his unit during his media availability during the 49ers’ OTAs.
“Our defense will be a fast, attacking, aggressive defense,” Ryans said. “I want guys to play fast. I want guys who are smart. I want guys who are going to play physical.”
Ryans says he doesn’t expect the defense to be completely the same under Saleh, despite the unit’s success over the past two seasons. In 2020, the Niners’ defense blitzed on 33.6 percent of their snaps, 10th most in the NFL. Ryans is thankful for the lessons he learned from Saleh but is looking forward to putting his own stamp on the defense.
“I am my own person. Saleh has taught me a lot, probably one of the coaches that’s taught me the most football that I’ve been around,” Ryans said. He’s been very integral to my development as a coach, and I can’t thank him enough for all the things he’s instilled in me. So there will be some of the similar scheme things that we’ve done in the past. You will see some similarities there, but you will see some wrinkles. You will see my brand of football on it.”
San Francisco invested five first-round picks into the defensive line since 2015 (three remain with the team), and general manager John Lynch has made it a point to add depth in the trenches. With Bosa and Arik Armstead leading the charge, Ryans wants the front of the defense to be the focal point of his scheme.
“I want to be known as an attacking defensive line,” Ryans said. “Our D-Line is going to attack. Our linebackers and secondary [are] going to play with base fundamentals. We’re going to play off our D-Line. We’re going to allow our D-Line to get off the ball and attack, we’re going to clean up things behind them, but we will be a more aggressive, attacking defense.”
The 49ers will need some of their younger players to take a step in their development if they want to be among the Super Bowl contenders in 2021. Ryans singled out three players in particular that he is hoping will make the jump next season.
“I look at a young guy like Kevin Givens and the way he’s been working,” Ryans said. “It’s been outstanding to see him work. He’s getting better and better each day.”
Another youngster Ryans is keeping his eye on is 2020 first-round selection, Javon Kinlaw. The 23-year-old had 33 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, four QB hits and a PFF grade of 54.1 in 2020.
Kinlaw has been working out in Santa Clara since February. Ryans believes the defensive tackle will benefit from a full offseason, something he couldn’t do because of the pandemic before his rookie season.
“He’s going to take a huge jump this year, he’s been doing an awesome job,” Ryans said about Kinlaw. “I can already see how much better he’s gotten in the couple weeks we’ve been together.”
The final prospect Ryans mentioned is linebacker Dre Greenlaw. The 2019 fifth-round pick’s career is off to a good start playing alongside All-Pro Fred Warner in the middle of the defense.
Ryans expects Greenlaw — who had 86 tackles (seven for a loss) and a sack in 2020 — to become of the leaders on the defense next season.
“Just how he’s developed and how he’s gotten better throughout these OTAs,” Ryans said. “I’m fired up to see his growth this year.”
How different do you think the 49ers’ defense will be next season under Ryans? What changes are you hoping to see from Ryans compared to the defense under Saleh?