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Why the 49ers can thank their defensive line for making the playoffs

Recapping what we saw from the defense before we turn the page to the Cowboys

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Before we turn the page and preview the Cowboys, I wanted to take time to appreciate what we saw from the 49ers defense Sunday and all season long.

This unit finished seventh overall in defensive DVOA for the year. But year-long metrics don’t tell the full story.

For example, the Cardinals finished one spot ahead of the Niners in defensive DVOA in 2021. Why? Because DVOA includes the first seven games when they had J.J. Watt, with games that included starts against an overmatched Titans offense, the Jaguars, Trey Lance’s first career start, Baker Mayfield, and Davis Mills.

Trending metrics tell you who these teams are. I like to use the previous eight games. That gives us a big enough sample size to work with.

Since Week 11, the 49ers are 10th in defensive EPA per play allowed compared to Arizona ranking 23rd. Success rate tells the real story as there isn’t as much variance in the numbers due to big plays. San Francisco ranks fifth in defensive success rate compared to the Cardinals ranking 12th.

55’s the mark

When I broke down the offense, No. 21 on the Rams was the player the 49ers went after relentlessly. Los Angeles’s center was the mark for the defense. He didn’t stand a chance, and the Niners took advantage.

Brian Allen is 6’2, 303 pounds. On early downs, D.J. Jones won with power. On passing downs, 6’5 Arden Key and 6’7 Arik Armstead won with their length and quickness. Allen was the whipping boy all afternoon for the Niners and a big reason why the defensive line pressured Matthew Stafford on 76% of his dropbacks.

Stafford made plays under pressure, and he gets credit for doing so. Both he and Cooper Kupp were flawless for most of the afternoon. But throwing blind fadeaways down the sideline to Kupp isn’t a recipe for success against a defense as sound as the 49ers.

By my count, the defensive line beat the center Allen nine times in the game. Outside of Stafford’s bomb to Kupp, each play ended with a positive result for the Niners:

I use Armstead and Nick Bosa’s sack as the 49ers played “meet me at the quarterback” all game with each other.

It’s fascinating to watch the defensive line stay in attack mode for four quarters. They were in track stances playing the quarterback the entire way. DeMeco Ryans and Kris Kocurek take advantage of the athleticism upfront.

The Rams ran a zone-read play early in the game, attempting to gain an extra blocker. Samson Ebukam didn’t respect Stafford keeping it (why would you?), raced down the line to make a stop for a gain of one.

That was a sign of what was to come for the best position group on the 49ers.

Sound and unselfish

If a big play happens, that doesn’t mean the defense made a mistake. The Rams are one of the most difficult offenses to defend, especially with the way Stafford was throwing the ball. He had two touchdown throws in the end zone that was perfectly placed to where each defender couldn’t make a play on the pass. It’s OK to tip your hat to the other team.

Over the course of the game, the ball evens out. It happens in every game. The Niners were rewarded with two interceptions after being in position all game.

The sideline reactions on this team are hilarious and enjoyable to watch all in one. For example, after Jauan Jennings had his 34-yard catch down the sideline in overtime, Trent Williams was celebrating in his face for about five seconds after the play clock for the next play began to run.

In the middle of the play — and I’ve never seen this happen before — Brandon Aiyuk runs onto the field after Emmanuel Moseley’s interception. And not only that, he runs in front of a referee, who is so locked in that he doesn’t notice Aiyuk is on the field.

Watch at about the 46-yard of the 49ers below. Aiyuk can’t contain his excitement, jumps up and down, runs onto the field, then retreats to the sideline:

I’m sure Aiyuk received an earful from Shanahan.

From a team standpoint, of course, they’re able to win because there are good players everywhere. The defense excels because there are unselfish players everywhere.

Take this blitz below, for example. This play isn’t successful without everyone doing their job. Fred Warner and Jimmie Ward are blitzing, as Dre Greenlaw is the intended “free runner.” Too often, you’d see the player in Ward or Warner’s situation rush selfishly, which wouldn’t allow Greenlaw to come free.

Start at the 11:55 mark:

Warner ensures he crosses the face of the left guard; that way, he’s occupied. Ward attacks the outside shoulder of the running back, so he can’t peel off and make a block. All of this allows Greenlaw, one of your faster players, a free run at Stafford.

Samson Ebukam passes off the routes in coverage as if he’s been playing defensive back all of his life, and the 49ers get off the field on a crucial 3rd & 7 and eventually go down the field and tie the score.

That execution and creativity are why Demeco Ryans will be a head coach sooner than later.

The Rams are one of the best teams in the NFL at getting their wide receivers involved in the running game. They get a head start and will trap your second-level defenders. That’s how running back Sony Michel had an impressive second have of the season.

Ryans stopped them before they got started. He’d cover the Rams wideouts up and make them block at the line of scrimmage. It often resulted like the play below:

Dontae Johnson made a few plays against the run near the line of scrimmage. Kupp bested him as a receiver, but Dontae got his payback with a couple of run stops.

The sacrifice started from the first play:

Dre Greenlaw, Johnson, and Jaquiski Tartt are lined head up over the Rams eligible receivers to the left side of the formation. Why? So Fred Warner and Emmanuel Moseley are free to make the tackle.

Johnson beats Kupp and ends up making the play, but players willing to sacrifice statistics for the team's benefit speak volumes. Now that we mentioned Moseley.

Moseley made himself some money

At first, Ryans played more conservatively than he usually does. He’d sit back and play coverage in hopes to protect his secondary. Ryans began to blitz more; he also switched Ward onto Kupp, but the reason he was able to get back to his roots was because of Emmanuel Moseley.

Moseley made himself money on Sunday. Targets only tell about 5-10% of what happened. Ryans had a cornerback he could trust to guard Odell Beckham Jr. 1-on-1. OBJ caught a third down on the first drive of the game and a quick slant for another conversion in the first half. After that, he was held without a catch. Moseley blanketed the star receiver all afternoon.

Moseley was also aggressive against the run and gave this team a boost at cornerback that they hadn’t had during the past month. You don’t have to make Jalen Ramsey-like interceptions. You just can’t miss tackles and give up the big play. It sounds simple, but that’s been a challenge for the cornerbacks in the second half.

They’ll need him again against a Cowboys offense that features CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper. As you saw in the picture above, it’s not just against the pass. You can’t get away with playing as much 3-deep coverage without your cornerbacks being awesome in the running game.

The 49ers will count on Moseley to help slow down Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard.