In their strong start, the 49ers have looked to compile strong performances in all three facets of the field, outscoring opponents 167-68 through five weeks.
Defensively, the 49ers are operating with a similar formula as they've focused on over the past few years, working from the inside out and looking to win in the trenches on a weekly basis.
However, despite the addition of stout defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, the 49ers have actually decreased in sack percentage, going from 6.63 percent in 2022 (16th in NFL) to 6.07 percent in 2023 (24th in NFL).
Is the play as alarming as the numbers indicate?
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks chimed in on the lower sack rate in 2023, sharing that the primary reason behind the lack of opportunities is due to opponent gameplans of getting the ball out quickly.
“It is hard to put a grade on it and everybody looks for numbers and you want to say [DL Nick] Bosa is not doing this, or [DL Javon] Hargrave’s not doing this, but as you just mentioned, they’re getting rid of the ball quickly,” Wilks said. “We do have a lot of disruption on the quarterback, meaning we’re hitting the quarterback, and based off each game plan it determines exactly what we do coverage-wise.”
“So I think there’s times that you can see this past week that we tighten things up a little bit and we’re able to get there and we force some ill-advised throws that came out in our favor.”
Sacks aren’t always the best statistic to evaluate how often pass rushers are getting to the quarterback for that particular reason, which is why pressures paint a clearer picture.
Looking at the numbers, the 49ers trail only the Detroit Lions, who have 124 pressures as a team, with 116 pressures in 2023, and are one of just nine teams to accumulate at least 100 pressures thus far.
Additionally, it’s been a collective effort for the 49ers, with six players having at least nine pressures, while stars Nick Bosa and Javon Hargrave lead the way with 27 and 19 pressures, respectively.
Going even further, the 49ers are the lone team to feature two pass-rush combinations that have been the most effective when rushing four this season, according to PFF’s Arjun Menon.
Here are the top 4 man pass rushing combos that have the highest pressure rate on non blitz attempts this season. If people are interested in a certain combo, lmk and I can pull up their numbers for you pic.twitter.com/JA2k7IqymV— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) October 13, 2023
Not only are the 49ers' top four players in Arik Armstead, Drake Jackson, Javon Hargrave, and Nick Bosa getting to the quarterback at a top-five rate in the NFL with just four rushers, but the backup unit has also produced pressure at a high clip.
So, while the sack numbers haven't necessarily been there, the pressure numbers back what’s seen on film: the 49ers are getting to the quarterback, forcing the ball out, where the remainder of the defense is able to do their jobs.
The 49ers’ sack rate should improve, as getting the job done on that front is important, but the narrative that San Francisco’s defensive line has been ineffective from a pass-rushing standpoint through five weeks is incorrect, especially when rushing just four.
Now, the 49ers have a chance to improve those numbers when introducing new defensive end Randy Gregory into the fold, who could slide into a starting spot once acclimated with his new team.