At the forefront of the wide range of skills DeMeco Ryans has brought to the table in his time as defensive coordinator has been his ability to maximize personnel and make adjustments on the fly. Whether it be mid-game, mid-week, or mid-season, Ryans’ ability to adapt and evolve has been a tremendous strength in his time leading the 49ers' defense.
Both of those skills have been put to the test in recent weeks, as Ryans and the 49ers have been without the services of one of their best players while Arik Armstead deals with a foot injury that has sidelined him since Week 4.
Without Armstead, Ryans and the defensive staff have been tasked with finding a way to replace the production of one of the better interior pass rushers in the league. Ryans’ solution to this problem was creating his own variation of a personnel grouping that coincidentally gave the 49ers fits in a playoff game over a decade ago.
Former New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is known as the originator of the “NASCAR” package, which bucks the traditional trend of two defensive tackles paired with two edge rushers and instead deploys a front consisting of four defensive ends.
Fewell and the Giants' defensive innovation was led by a dominant foursome of Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Mathias Kiwanuka. These four wreaked havoc on opposing offenses, throwing a curveball that many teams struggled to adjust to. You might remember their performance in a certain NFC Championship Game back in January of 2012...
Back to the present and these 2022 49ers. Ryans had to find a way to mitigate the loss of his frontline starters on the interior of the defensive line and generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks without the services of game-wrecking talents of players like Armstead and Javon Kinlaw.
Ryans has been able to navigate this situation masterfully by deploying his own flavor of the “NASCAR” front and utilizing the bevy of talented edge rushers on this squad to form a dangerous front with four defensive ends on the field together at the same time.
As I understand it, the 49ers refer to this personnel grouping with four defensive ends as their “lightning” package—San Francisco’s very own ode to the “NASCAR” front.
Now two things are non-negotiable if you are going to take this route and deploy a defensive front like this. Number one, and most importantly, you have to have the personnel to pull this off effectively. Not all edge rushers are created equally, and finding one who can remain productive on the inside without a severe drop-off in efficiency is far easier said than done.
You need a player like Charles Omenihu. Fast and twitchy enough to win off the edge, yet strong and deliberate enough to punish guards and centers on the interior. Omenihu has delivered time and time again this season when kicked inside, generating pressures like this at a rate that places him among the league’s elite.
Charles Omenihu’s versatility and ability to win on the interior has been a major catalyst for the success of this 49ers defense— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) November 1, 2022
It’s allowed them to get very creative with some of their fronts and personnel groupings, which has been invaluable in the absence of Arik Armstead pic.twitter.com/wvJq4cxFDU
Rookie Drake Jackson has played a pivotal role in the 49ers' ability to pull off these unorthodox fronts. Jackson possesses tremendous athletic traits, including eye-popping lateral agility that has allowed the 49ers' defensive staff to exploit opposing offenses with stunts like this.
Samson Ebukam, Kerry Hyder, and Nick Bosa all deserve recognition as well, with each having an integral role in the success of this entire operation. Without their ability and willingness to adapt and embrace a new role outside their usual comfort zones, none of this would be possible.
What sets this group apart from previous teams and their usage of four defensive end fronts is the way that Ryans has incorporated his linebackers into the pressure packages, most notably Fred Warner and his usage of stunts in overload fronts. Here are a couple of examples.
The first from the 49ers' week five win over the Panthers. San Francisco’s defense is going to line up in an overloaded front, with three defensive ends to the strong side of the formation and Nick Bosa by himself in the 9-technique spot outside the right tackle. Warner is going to line up opposite of the right guard and loop around on a stunt that sends him through the B gap between the left guard and left tackle.
While Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield was able to get this ball out before Warner got home, the stress caused by this stunt and the overall speed on the field with this “lightning” package forced Mayfield to deliver a terrible ball that resulted in an incompletion on what usually is a routine check down.
Here is one from Sunday’s win over the Rams. It’s similar, but this time instead of the 1 technique attacking the B gap on the stunt with Warner, they attack the C gap and work all the way around to the outside shoulder of the right tackle. Warner gets home this time and brings down Matthew Stafford for a sack on a critical third down.
Ryans and this defense have done a good job mixing things up with this look as well, like this 3rd & 4 where they showed the same overload front that Warner has run the stunts out of, but this time sent Dre Greenlaw on a blitz while Warner was tasked with covering his now teammate Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield.
Ryans ability to get creative and not be predictable in this personnel grouping has allowed it to be the ultimate weapon for this team in obvious passing situations like third and long and two-minute drills.
To get a better sense of just how effective this package has been over the last month, I watched the game film from each of the last four games and charted every single snap that the 49ers were on the field with their “lightning” package. Some of the numbers I came away with will astound you.
For starters, the 49ers ran out this personnel grouping 41 times since Week 5, which accounts for 17.4% of their total defensive snaps over the last four games. However, where this package has truly shined has been on third downs.
Over the last four weeks, the 49ers have rolled out this lightning package 19 times on third down. Their opponents have converted just five of those 19 attempts. That equates to a conversion rate of 26.3 percent, a number that would be the lowest in the entire NFL this season.
That 26.3 percent conversion rate is even more impressive when you account for the fact that three of the four opponents the 49ers have faced over that span rank among the top six teams in the league in third down conversion rate this season.
Now the natural counter to any front that's sacrificing size up front would be to run the football, right? Well not against this group. They’ve held opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry on the ground when this “lightning” package has been on the field over the last few weeks.
The 49ers have even utilized this grouping to neutralize the scrambling threat from a mobile quarterback, which has plagued their elite defense for years now.
Jackson and Ebukam will be standing up over the guards, with Omenihu and Hyder Jr. in a three-point stance on the edge. Jackson and Ebukam are going to run a stunt on the interior that moves quarterback Marcus Mariota off his spot in the pocket.
As Mariota attempts to elude the pressure and take off from the pocket, he is chased down from behind by Jackson, who is able to bring Mariota down behind the line of scrimmage for a sack. A play made possible due to having the burst and explosion that comes with replacing a defensive tackle with an athlete like Jackson.
This “lightning” package has given opposing teams fits in all different kinds of ways, which has led to mistakes being made like this pick-six thrown by Mayfield. Even though the pressure didn’t get home, Mayfield’s internal clock was likely sped up due to the pressure this package had been applying all game.
It will be interesting to see how the 49ers adapt once they get a healthy Armstead back into the mix. It’s a no-brainer your football team is better when he is out there, but there has to be some solace in the fact that if there was ever a silver lining to his absence, it was discovering just how effective this personnel grouping has the potential to be.
Perhaps Armstead’s return can bring a little bit of “thunder” to pair with the already devastating “lightning” that has kept the 49ers' defense ranked as the top unit in the league despite a handful of injuries to key pieces on that side of the ball.