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DeMeco Ryans and Kris Kocurek: The duo behind the 49ers’ creative pass rush

The 49ers’ defensive coaching staff has been extremely creative in 2021 with their pass-rush schemes.

Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

While having Nick Bosa — one of the NFL’s premier edge rushers — makes being a defensive coordinator easier, DeMeco Ryans has stepped up in a big way to design creative schemes to pressure opposing quarterbacks.

The 49ers’ defensive line has generated at least 17 pressures in five straight games, dating back to Week 13. San Francisco has also sacked the opposing quarterback at least three times in each of the last five weeks.

While Bosa has been dominant, he’s been getting a lot of help from the rest of his position group. Arden Key has developed into an extremely bright spot for the 49ers over the second half of the season, leading the 49ers in pressures on Sunday, with a career-high seven. This season, Key has also added seven sacks, which is seven more than what he had last season with the Raiders.

In the middle, D.J. Jones has always been a force, but his game has blossomed this season. He leads the NFL in ESPN’s Run-Stop Win Rate in 2021 and has been an absolute force on the inside for the 49ers.

Samson Ebukam was signed this offseason to develop into a full-time speed rusher opposite Bosa, and he’s starting to become that over the last few weeks. He’s added 18 pressures and five sacks during the previous four weeks of the season to match his season total from 2020 with the Rams.

The 49ers’ defense is second in yards per carry allowed to opposing running backs at 3.71 YPC. They’re also sixth in adjusted sack rate at 7.6 percent, including 43 sacks on the season. Based on these numbers, San Francisco and New Orleans are the only two teams to have a Top-6 run defense and pass rush.

But the process hasn’t developed overnight and hasn’t stemmed from pure talent along the defensive line. Instead, the coaching and scheming have really accentuated the players’ strengths and have joined forces to create a formidable rush against quarterbacks.

Here’s a creative wrinkle that defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and Ryans implemented for Sunday’s matchup vs. Texans. They lined up Bosa on the inside, with Armstead, Ebukam, and Key rushing from the three-point stance. The stunt ultimately freed up Arden Key to create a pressure against Davis Mills.

Here’s the development of Key and Ebukam as reliable rushers on known passing downs. Bosa draws the double team, and that allows the other three rushers to have one-on-one matchups. They all win, and you can see the result for yourself.

Another wrinkle that showed up on Sunday was lining up Fred Warner as a stand-up pass rusher next to Nick Bosa along the inside. Bosa and Warner run a stunt, and every other lineman wins their individual matchups.

Ryans has also been fantastic at disguising his third-down coverage as well. Here he lines up Warner and Marcell Harris over the A-gap (on either side of the center) and then drops out of the blitz. The 49ers also rotate from a two-high pre-snap to a single-high post-snap. That confusion, mixed in with a timely pressure from Key, causes an errant dump off to force a 4th down.

Ryans and Kocurek have been down-right special in the second half of this season, coaching a defense that doesn’t have an established cornerback. They find creative ways to generate pressure against quarterbacks on a weekly basis and deserve a ton of credit for how they’ve developed this pass rush in 2021.