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What to expect when the 49ers are on defense: Protect the seams and pressure Tua

This is strength on strength as one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL face off against a dominant defense

New Orleans Saints v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Despite the blemishes of the Falcons game — where the 49ers defense was down several starters, including its entire defensive line — or a Chiefs game that featured the most talented quarterback of the generation on their record, DeMeco Ryans and the defense have cemented themselves as a top-five unit this year in the NFL.

The defense is first in points per game, drive, and success rate. Takeaways are one of the few areas where the Niners haven’t been in the upper echelon of the NFL.

They’re currently 12th, averaging 1.3 takeaways per game. But San Francisco is trending in the right direction, as that average has risen to 1.7 during the past three games.

That figure doesn’t include turning the opponent over on downs. That’s why I like to reference Drive Success Rate, which measures the percentage of series that result in a first or touchdown. The 49ers rank fourth in that stat.

Today, we’ll tie all of this into this upcoming week’s opponent while looking back at how the Saints attempted to attack the 49ers.

A little too aggressive?

Being aggressive isn't enough to excel on defense at the highest level. You have to toe the line of recklessness to get the job done. Nobody does that better than the front 7 of the 49ers.

But it comes with a price, and the Saints found a way to manipulate some of the 49ers' rules in man coverage. First, when Ryans is living in man-to-man against you, it’s a sign that he doesn’t respect your receivers. That, or he understands your quarterback isn’t a threat to run.

Neither the Saints pass-catchers nor Andy Dalton posed enough of a threat last Sunday, which is why we saw an uptick in man coverage. But New Orleans found a way to get open. Check out this play below:

Let’s focus on the top of the screen, where cornerback Deommodore Lenoir and linebacker Dre Greenlaw are responsible for covering the two tight ends to their side.

Greenlaw, or any defender in man coverage, is taught that if your eligible receiver is blocking, you have the ability to “green-dog” or blitz. Why? Well, there’s nobody for you to cover since everyone else is in man coverage, so it makes sense for you to put pressure on the quarterback.

As you can see, the tight end blocks for a good 2-Mississippi count, then releases into the void of the defense. The design is a way to get an open receiver when you know the rules of the defense.

This was one of the few plays where the Saints had success, but don’t think the next three opponents, especially Mike McDaniel, won’t look to use a similar concept against a defense he knows inside and out.

Winning on early downs

The only teams with a higher EPA per play on first and second downs this season offensively than the Dolphins have Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen under center. Miami is also sixth in success rate on early downs, so they are both explosive and consistent.

Conversely, the 49ers are far and away the best defensive team on early downs. Their EPA per play is -0.14, compared to Robert Saleh’s Jets in second place at -0.08. It doesn’t stop there, as San Francisco is three points lower in success rate than the second-place team at 37 percent — the league average is 45 percent.

On Friday, McDaniel didn’t rule out left tackle Terron Armstead, but Miami’s other tackle, Austin Jackson, was ruled out. We can talk about all of the speed the Dolphins have on the perimeter and in the backfield, but if you can’t block, it won’t matter.

The Kris Kocurek factor has gotten stronger as the season goes along in previous years, and it’s no different in 2022. An above-average defense sees its star players win their 1-on-1 battles routinely. Likewise, an elite defense has its role players and backups winning its individual battles.

Let’s use this snap from TY McGill last week as an example. The down is 2nd & 8. The defensive line consists of Nick Bosa and three other backups. McGill has recently been a standard elevation from the practice squad while defensive Arik Armstead recovers from plantar fasciitis. Yet, the “McGills” on the roster seem to win:

McGill played eight run snaps against the Saints. That one tackle for loss was the difference in third and manageable and New Orleans punting.

Miami is 23rd in adjusted sack rate. Despite running a predominant RPO offense where the quarterback gets rid of the ball quickly, the Dolphins are 11th in pressure percentage allowed at 24 percent.

San Francisco has a significant advantage in the trenches. When the Dolphins faced formidable opponents this season, they struggled to score. Without T.J. Watt, they put up 16 against the Steelers. The week prior, they scored 17 against the Jets; before that, it was 15 points against the Bengals.

With a healthy front four, the 49ers will dictate Sunday’s game. And it’ll have to, as strength meets weakness...

Staying away from the seams

On the one hand, the 49ers are as good as it gets, thanks to Fred Warner, when it comes to defending the intermediate and middle third portions of the field. Next Gen Stats tweeted this graphic highlighting the Niners’ success:

I’m not going to sit here and tell you Warner is the sole reason that passes aren’t completed over the middle of the field, but this type of effort and awareness makes it difficult to argue against:

The short and intermediate parts of the field aren’t a concern for the 49ers' defense. But the deep part is, and this is where you hope the pass rush consistently gets after Tua. San Francisco ranks 29th in DVOA against deep passes. They are sixth worst in deep passes to the left and fifth-worst on throws over 20 yards to the right. It’s a problem, but teams have not been able to take advantage.

These are the type of plays that are a cause for concern:

That stat sheet won’t reflect it, but to me, that’s on Talanoa Hufanga. And I would imagine the subsequent three offenses do what they can to put Hufanga in a bind in coverage.

The defense is in a 3-deep coverage, with the weak safety, Tashaun Gipson, rotating down and serving as the robber/lurking safety to take away any crossing routes. Hufanga rotates from the strong side to the middle of the field.

Hufanga is late to rotate, and I’m unsure why. There are three receivers to his side, but two of them eliminate themselves by running underneath routes. The third receiver is Jarvis Landry, the furthest thing from a vertical threat. So, knowing all his vertical threats are eliminated, Hufanga should be getting depth and working toward the middle of the field.

Instead, his feet are stuck in the mud, and he’s caught looking in the backfield. That’s how the explosive play happens. Ideally, Hufanga and Lenoir are converging on the pass at the same time, and there’s a collision or some type of contested catch the receiver has to make.

If Miami can protect Tua, which is the biggest “if” in this game, those are the plays that can give the 49ers trouble.

There was a play later in the Saints game where Gipson was also slow to move off the hash, but Jimmie Ward contested a throw, and Samson Ebukam hit the quarterback on the throw.

Discipline wins out

On Thursday, Fred Warner mentioned how the 49ers practice against this Dolphins offense all training camp. They know not to fall for the eye candy and pre-snap motion, as well as be disciplined on specific fakes.

Familiarity and discipline will go a long way for the 49ers Sunday. They are aware that Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle account for over 50 percent of the Dolphin’s targets. For as much familiarity as McDaniel’s has, DeMeco Ryans knows his tendencies, too. Also, Ryans has gotten so much better as the season has gone along at disguising his looks and coverages.

Tua will give you an opportunity. Other teams haven’t taken advantage. Tagovailoa has the fifth-highest turnover-worthy percentage in the NFL. If the defense continues to fly around while playing disciplined, and you figure there’s a decent amount of pressure on Tua, there will be a few opportunities for turnovers.

The Dolphins live in the middle of the field, while the 49ers have the best equalizer in the sport patrolling that area in Warner. In this video below, I go in-depth about what makes this unit special, why they’re able to win as often as they do, and where teams like the Dolphins might attack.