New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh proved to be one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL during his tenure with the 49ers. However, while Saleh’s schemes consistently gave fits to traditional pocket passers, the Niners struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks. Over the past two seasons, the 49ers faced quarterbacks that averaged more than 20 rushing yards per game 14 times and allowed those signal-callers to accumulate 47.6 rushing yards per game on 5.9 yards a carry.
Now with Saleh in New York, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is relying on first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. In his first regular-season game as coordinator, Ryans lost his best cornerback to a season-ending injury and faced plenty of criticism from overreacting fans after the defense’s late-game collapse in their 41-33 victory over the Detroit Lions.
Now, heading into the 49ers Week 2 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, Ryans must design a scheme to contain dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts.
While Hurts may not have one of the strongest arms in the league, the Eagles have built their offense around his dynamic abilities as a runner.
In just five career NFL starts, Hurts has accumulated 334 rushing yards on 53 carries. Needless to say, the 49ers defense will struggle to stop Philadelphia if Hurts finds as much room to run as quarterbacks found against them under Saleh.
The 49ers' edge rushers have consistently generated good push against opposing outside blockers, however, players like Nick Bosa and Dee Ford can get overly aggressive pursuing the quarterback, leaving large running lanes for more athletic opponents.
If the Niners pass rush doesn’t stay disciplined against the Eagles, Hurts’ legs could wreak havoc on the ground and extending plays, where he could put added pressure on an already weakened secondary.
Scheming around the loss of Verrett and the possible continued absence of cornerback Emmanuel Moseley is the most obvious challenge for Ryans over the next few days.
The 49ers saw firsthand how easily a depleted defensive backfield could undermine a team in their 43-17 loss to the Dolphins last season when Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 22-28 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns. With that said, the Eagles' offense is built around Hurts’ unique skillset, which will always make running the ball a priority.
The questions facing the 49ers secondary creates problems for more than just their pass defense. Ryans will likely have to scheme more safety and linebacker help in coverage, potentially forcing the Niners to play without a dedicated quarterback spy more than they’d like.
In addition, pass rushers may feel extra pressure to get to the quarterback quickly, which could make them even more at-risk of leaving wide-open running lanes for Hurts.
In just his second game as the 49ers defensive coordinator, DeMeco Ryans will face a massive dilemma as he prepares to face off against Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. Ryans must balance his pass rush’s tendency to lose contain with a greater need to generate pressure to aid his second-string cornerbacks.
If Ryans finds the right balance to contain Hurts, the Niners have the talent to shut down Philadelphia’s offense entirely. Otherwise, fans may have reason to be worried that the 49ers' notable struggles against mobile quarterbacks will continue.