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Will the 49ers keep up their dominant run defense in 2022?

A couple of reasons for and against

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The 49ers’ defense made teams one-dimensional last year. San Francisco finished second in rushing EPA per play, success rate, and DVOA. Offenses didn’t bother wasting downs trying to run against the Niners, which made life more difficult through the air.

Arik Armstead was vital to last year’s success, but so was D.J. Jones, who took his talents to the Mile High city. Today, we’ll discuss whether the 49ers run defense in 2022 will be better or worse than they were a year ago.

Why the 49ers could be better

Health. That’s the most straightforward answer. During the past few seasons, health has been the root cause whenever the Niners struggle. Armstead isn’t paying defensive tackle down the stretch last season with a healthy roster.

A defensive line consisting of Nick Bosa, Armstead, Samson Ebukam, and Javon Kinlaw would be next to impossible to run against. Kinlaw is in somewhat of a prove-it year in 2022. Armstead had the second-highest run-stop win rate last season to Jones.

San Francisco has the talent at every position to win their 1-on-1 battles. In most cases, that’s enough to stop the run. But the way this team is wired defensively and how they play together makes it easy to project them as a top-tier unit.

Speed. The back-7 consists of aggressive players who fly around. If there is a crease, it generally closes within a split second. There are several instances during a game where the offense tries to get to the edge, only for one of the linebackers or defensive backs to tackle them for a minimal gain.

DeMeco Ryans’ unit was sound in 2021. In Year 2, it wouldn’t shock to see them better in every facet, including against the run.

Why the 49ers could be worse

Tackling. For as athletic as the second-level defenders are, they can take poor angles or flat out miss the tackle. Azeez Al-Shaair missed 14.8% of his tackles last season. Dre Greenlaw missed 12.5%.

Fred Warner is a cyborg, as he only missed 7.3%, but there were plays when Greenlaw wouldn’t take his direct path, and that would allow a blocker to cut Warner off from making the tackle. If the run defense is to continue to execute at an elite level, the linebackers must find the balance between aggressive and recklessness.

If Kinlaw is in and out of the lineup, and the 49ers have to rely on Hassan Ridgeway playing Kinlaw’s snaps and rotational players filling in behind, it’s safe to assume a drop-off from the No. 2 spot.

Kinlaw has to prove he has endurance. Occasionally, as a rookie, teams would move Kinlaw the later it got into the series or games. The last thing you want is your defensive tackle to end up in the lap of your linebackers.

Health could go here, too. A rash of injuries could turn a top-heavy unit into average quickly.

Jaquiski Tartt hid some deficiencies throughout his tenure. He’d often take on blocks or slip through a block to make a tackle he had no business making. We’ve heard the coaching staff say all of the right things about Talanoa Hufanga. But Hufanga had a higher missed tackle rate than each of the linebackers last year at 16.7%.

There’s a plausible scenario where the team took Tartt’s talents for granted, and Hufanga isn’t ready to step into the role of a starter. Missed tackles lead to big plays, which weren’t something the 49ers gave up when Tartt and Jimmie Ward were on the field together last season.