Of all the features of the 49ers team that has enjoyed continual success under Kyle Shanahan, arguably none has been more impressive than San Francisco’s sustained elite level of performance on defense.
Since its 2019 ascension with Robert Saleh under defensive coordinator, the 49er defense has remained in the top five in the NFL. It has maintained that status through the end of Saleh’s stay and the transition to DeMeco Ryans, the second and final year with Ryans as DC perhaps representing the zenith for the defense
The 2023 season, however, may represent the most significant challenge for the 49er defense in the Shanahan era. San Francisco will be tasked with staying at the top of the NFL with a coordinator hired from outside the organization replacing the departed Ryans.
Steve Wilks will keep the same defensive system, but, with a new voice leading the defense will come changes.
And, with Wilks at the helm, there figure to be alterations not just to the personnel, but how it is deployed.
The new Charles Omenihu
Many of the personnel changes to the defense have ties to Wilks’ arrival. The signings of cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver and Myles Hartsfield – whom Wilks worked with in Carolina – both had his fingerprints on them.
However, up front, they were dictated by the departures of several members of the defensive line rotation. Samson Ebukam, Jordan Willis and Charles Omenhiu all moved on, with the latter the toughest to replace.
Last year’s second-round pick Drake Jackson will almost certainly step in for Ebukam and start across from Nick Bosa at defensive end. However, finding a successor to Omenihu who could replicate his impact playing inside and out was always going to be difficult.
The 49ers did not invest one of their top picks in the draft in a player with the skill set to do so. The most likely outcome, therefore, is that the 49ers will ask free agent signing Clelin Ferrell to often play inside.
As Jordan Elliott detailed in his profile of Ferrell, the former fourth overall pick played snaps on the interior for the Raiders, and that was where he flashed his most pass-rush potential in 2022.
Clelin Ferrell QB hit from the 3T pic.twitter.com/Bf4Qayvokh— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) March 15, 2023
The 49ers also signed Austin Bryant, Ferrell’s former Clemson teammate, and drafted Robert Beal Jr. in the fifth round. Both, though, will likely serve primarily as rotational edge defenders on passing downs.
Following the addition of Javon Hargrave, the 49ers will hope they won’t need to rely on one of their defensive linemen to operate in the Omenihu role as much. Between Hargrave and Arik Armstead, San Francisco’s interior rush should be formidable enough without kicking a defensive end inside. Yet on snaps where the Niners give Hargrave or Armstead a rest, Ferrell stands out as the clear front-runner to step in and provide interior disruption.
The 49ers had three players listed on the roster as safeties on the field for most of 2022. Jimmie Ward shifted into the nickel role because of injuries at corner and Tashaun Gipson’s late-career resurgence at free safety.
Ward is gone and Oliver is the front-runner to play the nickel, but the 49ers could still play significant snaps with three safeties on the field in 2023.
The 49ers can afford to have significant faith in Gipson following his five-interception first season with the team. After selecting Ji’Ayir Brown with their top pick in the third round in this year’s draft, the 49ers have their successor for Gipson and their likely long-term starting safety pairing in Brown and Talanoa Hufanga.
There is no pressure to get Brown on the field as a rookie, but the Niners may understandably be eager to make use of his versatility as a rookie.
Brown’s multifaceted nature creates the potential for a lot of three-safety looks. He has the size and the coverage ability to play the slot and match up against tight ends. He also brings the thump to potentially play in the box as a linebacker on base downs.
Yet, the most intriguing aspect of Brown’s arrival is how he could free up Hufanga. While Hufanga consistently demonstrated his play-making instincts in an All-Pro 2022 campaign, there is no doubt he does his best work near the line of scrimmage. On those base downs, it is possible that Brown could play as a deep safety alongside Gipson, with Hufanga pushed forward into a SAM linebacker role, releasing him to rush the passer or run blitz more often.
Wilks has experience running the 3-3-5 with the Browns and at Missouri, and did so for very limited snaps in his spells with the Cardinals and Panthers. The 49ers have rarely used three down linemen in the Shanahan era, but it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see it sporadically utilized to get both Hufanga and Brown on the field with one in the box.
The 49ers will want to harness the aggression of their likely long-term starters at safety. There is an obvious way Wilks will look to do that with Brown.
Brown was an impressive pass rusher on blitzes during his time at Penn State. He registered 4.5 sacks in his final college season, and his acumen in that regard will certainly be useful to Wilks in his mission to make the 49er defense more attacking.
Wilks said in his opening press conference that he felt the 49ers had the personnel to be “more aggressive” with the talent San Francisco has at linebacker. He made no attempt to hide a desire to blitz more than the Niners have in years gone by. Last season, San Francisco ranked 20th with a blitz rate of 21.6%.
Yes, Fred Warner deserves the praise here for working his way around the LG on the stunt but I've highlighted Jackson again. Lateral agility to quickly move from the outside shoulder of the C to the RT, and absurd levels of bend to turn the corner.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) November 8, 2022
Also Nick Bosa vs the LT, lol. pic.twitter.com/KvL9hKwE7h
Both Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are impressive blitzers, while the former’s ability to thrive in coverage is a critical skill that can facilitate more blitzes from elsewhere on the field.
A frequent blitzer under Ryans, Hufanga may see an expanded role in that area of the game, with Wilks running the show. Brown is also a candidate to be regularly sent as an extra rusher, and Oliver’s experience blitzing from the slot is something the Niners can use to their advance in creating pressure.
With the front four they have, the Niners don’t need to become a blitz-happy defense. However, the transition to Wilks is one that could move them into the top half of the NFL in sending additional rushers.
That increased number of blitzes will put extra strain on a secondary Wilks believes is well-equipped to handle it.
A man coverage uptick
Even with the 49ers signing a corner adept in man coverage in Charvarius Ward last offseason, the 49ers remained one of the most zone-heavy teams in the NFL in 2022.
Indeed, San Francisco was 29th in man coverage usage rate during the regular season, but the Niners can be expected to climb those rankings under Wilks.
Asked about incorporating more man coverage in 2023, Wilks said in his first press conference:
“I think you have to explore and experiment with everything. My background is diverse in zone as well as man, and I think it can change each week based off your opponent and who you're playing. Do I feel like we have the skill set to play more man? Yes.”
It is tough to dispute Wilks’ assessment. Ward is one of the better man coverage corners in the NFL, who thrived when asked to guard the likes of D.K. Metcalf and DeAndre Hopkins last season.
His performance matched up in man coverage against the Eagles’ dynamic wide receivers was one of the bright spots of the 49ers’ NFC Championship Game nightmare.
Deommodore Lenoir's ascension was one of my favourite aspects of last season for the 49ers.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 16, 2023
Plenty of room to grow still, but capable of putting the clamps on receivers like on this rep vs. Hopkins. pic.twitter.com/s0a2m96eEz
Meanwhile, the Niners’ faith in Deommodore Lenoir’s ability to hold up on an island on the outside was also frequently vindicated.
There are still depth questions at corner, yet there is plenty of reason for steadfast belief in the starting outside corners’ ability to excel playing more man coverage.
Wilks’ background is as a highly regarded secondary coach. His opening remarks suggest he will try to use his acumen in that area to help the 49ers successfully diversify their coverages with an infusion of more man that enables San Francisco to generate increased disruption with a more aggressive approach. Succeed in doing so, and there will be every chance of the defense going through this latest transition with its league-leading status intact.