After incredible success fielding the most feared 3-4 defense in recent memory, the 49ers look to evolve in order to rescue the Bay Area franchise.
It’s no mystery why the 49ers went from defensive powerhouse a couple years ago to the worst overall defense, and dead last against the run last year. The awkward departure of Harbaugh and a plague of player turnover took the team from NFC contender to near bottom dweller. With a slew of new coaches and coordinators, the possibility of a much improved defense could return the 49ers to respectability sooner rather than later, and even put them in the hunt for a Wildcard berth.
Doing so will require solid trench play, and a core of sure-tackling linebackers with closing speed. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what a starting seven in San Francisco could look like.
New Faces, New Schemes
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One day after the devastating loss in Super Bowl LI, Kyle Shanahan walked away from Atlanta, and became the 20th head coach of the San Francisco 49ers franchise. Jed York and Co. won out in alluring Shanahan to the Bay Area. After excelling as the offensive coordinator in Atlanta, he was ready to lead his own squad.
On February 13, 2017, Robert Saleh was named the new defensive coordinator of the 49ers and reunited with Shanahan. Both served as assistants in Houston during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, and now the two will head respective sides of the ball in San Francisco.
They also scored was a haul of defensive players in the draft, including the 3rd overall pick Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford and pick 31 Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama. Thomas oozes SEC athleticism at 6’3” and 273 pounds. He was one of the highest scouted pass-rushers in this year’s draft, and should make an impact on the edge in the 4-technique. As for Foster, he was a steal at 31, and capped a better-than-expected first round. Foster was a first-team All-American, All-SEC pick, and was 2017’s Butkus Award winner after totaling 115 tackles and five sacks. The 49ers added two more defensive linemen to their rookie camp squad in sixth round picks D.J. Jones, DL, Ole Miss and Pita Taumoepenu of Utah. Now it’s a matter of developing starters in Saleh’s system.
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After his time in Houston, Saleh’s work as a defensive quality control and assistant linebackers coach helped lead Seattle to their 2013 Super Bowl victory. His pedigree in those cities translated to some recognizable success as linebackers coach in Jacksonville, helping lift that defense to sixth in the NFL last year. Common threads in Saleh’s defenses are smash-mouth styled football, and successful 4-3 formations.
Now, After reports that Saleh will implement his own version of the 4-3 base defense, the on-field performance of the entire team will be measured by the unique arrangement of their rotating front seven.
Why The 4-3?
After fielding one of the best 3-4 defenses in recent memory, the 49ers speed was gone, and the locker room presence that fed the defensive growl had moved on. Its thus no wonder many analysts and fans have been speculating over whether the 49ers will run a 4-3 Under, or 4-3 Over. Heck, they may even run the 4-3 Bear as the Jags did on 13% of their plays. The point is, we’re likely to see it all, and any incarnation will be uniquely in the vision of Saleh himself. However, there have been indications as to what he thinks it will look like.
One consensus is that most of the talent on the roster still look like the shell of a 3 - 4, and that many of the 4-3 formations could be hybridized to accommodate San Francisco’s unique collection of size and speed.
Nick Wagoner of ESPN noted “To start, the 49ers are making the move from a true 3-4 scheme to a modified 4-3 defense that will switch over and under alignments, based on opponents and situations.”
This is something the Seahawks have done with relative success the last few years, and many wonder if Saleh will channel his former team’s specialization. Another thing Saleh is expected to do which mirrors his former team: load eight men in the box. All that said, he doesn’t want anyone going crazy with labeling his work in progress.
“To say it’s going to look like Seattle… it’s going to be unique to us. Will you see similarities? Maybe, but there’s going to be things that we do that’s unique to the entire system, when you look at Jacksonville, Atlanta, Seattle, and the Chargers [sic]” Saleh said at a recent press conference.
He also indicated that due to the makeup of the previous line, the 49ers will be switching it up from the 4-3 Over that Jacksonville ran some 47% of the time.
“You have Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, Dekoda Watson, they’re built to be on the ball, and because of that, Jacksonville’s[sic] more over front. Here, we have the ability to keep that presence of them on the ball. So we can send them in pressure, and add that element to our defense.” -Saleh
This pretty much describes the SAM linebacker being brought up to the line of scrimmage on the weak side, similar to the 4-3 under. But again, we’re likely to see a lot of different looks all the way through preseason, of which no doubt you’ll also see some under formations mixed in.
Perhaps most important will be the injection of some exciting new players, coaches looking for success at the next level, and a city ready to put some ugly history behind it. I’ll bet we see some much improved play, and some great defensive performances out of this team in 2017.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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