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2017 Opponent Scouting Report: Week 5, 49ers Defense, No, Not Everyone Retired. I Think.

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NFL: New York Jets at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On October 8, 2017, the Indianapolis Colts will host the San Francisco 49ers. In this week five match up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea for what we’re up against. The 49ers are just three years removed from firing the best coach they’ve had since Bill Walsh. The last time our Colts played these 49ers we saw Amahad Bradshaw and the offensive line out-Harbaugh, Harbaugh. The Colts ran the ball and stopped the run. They were able to shut down Colin Kaepernick (impressive in 2013). A lot of faces have changed for both teams since 2013, including new GM John Lynch, hopefully that turnover won’t hurt our chances this time around. Let’s figure out what we can expect in week five.


Scheme

If you read last weeks breakdown on the Seattle Seahawks defense, you’re ahead of the curve, congrats. I’ll recap for anyone who missed out. If you would like to read the Seahawks report I did last week, I’m going to be sampling heavily from it anyway, click here.

The 49ers run a base 4-3 under defense. Danny Kelly of Field Gulls gives us this explanation. You’re going to notice I’m using Field Gulls a lot here, you’re also going to see a lot of “Seahawks” and “Pete Carroll” and that’s because the 49ers Defensive Coordinator, Robert Saleh, spent three seasons as the defensive quality control coach in Seattle before being hired as a linebackers coach in Jacksonville. The Jags scheme? You guessed it, it’s a base 4-3 under hybrid.

From Kelly:

The 4-3 Under, in it's simplest terms, is a gap control system meant to stop the run and to pressure the passer. For the most part, each lineman and linebacker is responsible for one gap - this makes each player's responsibility fairly cut and dry and eliminates a lot of the reads and thinking from the game.

In the late 1980's, Monte Kiffin began coaching for the Minnesota Vikings with a coach named Floyd Peters and they further developed the 4-3 Under that emphasized rushing the passer. The 4-3 Under system uses almost exclusively a staggered alignment to the offense in this basic set.

As you can see, in a basic 4-3 Under, the SAM linebacker is lined up to the outside shoulder of the tight end off the line of scrimmage a yard or two and is responsible for the D gap (to the outside of the tight end). He's also responsible for running in pass coverage from time to time. The strongside defensive end is lined up to the outside shoulder of the tackle, in a 5-technique alignment, and is responsible for the C gap (to the right of the tackle). The strongside defensive tackle is usually lined up shading the center in a 1-technique alignment and is responsible for the strongside A gap. The weakside defensive tackle is lined up in a 3-technique alignment off the weakside guard and is responsible for the weakside B gap in front of him. The weakside defensive end is lined up to the outside shoulder of the weakside offensive tackle and is responsible for the C gap on his side.

This leaves the strongside B gap and the weakside A gap open. These are the responsibilities of the MIKE and WILL linebackers.

Still with me? Good.

The defense that Pete Carroll now employs uses the basic tenets of the Monte Kiffin 4-3 Under defense and mixes in a variation originally pioneered by the legendary George Seifert in San Francisco. Seifert wanted to create mismatches against the opposing offensive line so he started using his weakside defensive end to rove around and rush the passer from a two-point stance (standing up position). This was the beginning of the "Elephant" position and one that Carroll uses today. We also see this position called the LEO, and in the Hawks' defense can rush standing up or in a three-point stance.

It's the same basic alignment but as you can see, the SAM linebacker comes up closer to the line to play hard contain and the weakside LEO is pushed out a bit, maybe a yard off of the weakside tackle. The LEO's main job is to control the C gap while rushing the passer like a wild banshee and the SAM plays contain against the TE, runs in pass coverage with him, or rushes the passer in some situations.

Okay cool, these are the basics of their front seven. What about their brand of secondary? Danny Kelly talks about that too.

Example 1: Three-down lineman nickel Cover-3 look

Again, this is a very general Cover-3, three deep, four under scheme I've drawn up.

Defensive line: In the illustration above, the Hawks have two defensive-end types rushing (No. 91 Chris Clemons and No. 56 Cliff Avril). Those players may go inside or outside the tackle/tight end to achieve pressure. Michael Bennett (No. 72) is aligned over the center ('nose tackle' ), and he'll look to slice through and pressure the quarterback.

Linebackers: I've shown a look here where MLB Bobby Wagner (No. 54) would come in on a blitz, perhaps stunting or drafting off of Bennett. In any case, K.J. Wright could come with pressure here as well and alternate coverage responsibilities with Wagner. There's flexibility. On the outside, you could see Bruce Irvin rush off the edge or stunt with Avril. Seattle has the athletes at the linebacker position to allow them to do both.

Safeties: Because Chancellor (No. 31) is almost a de facto linebacker, you'll most often see him in the box, stopping the run and taking away short crossing patterns. He can drop into coverage, run in man-to-man or blitz. Earl Thomas (No. 29) would take the seam or post route into his area. If there are two, he splits the difference between the two.

Example 2: Four down lineman nickel Cover-3 look

In this case, I've replaced Bruce Irvin with NT Brandon Mebane. This could also be Clinton McDonald. In the case above, Thurmond could be playing man on the slot receiver, with everyone else in zone.

Example 3: Four down nickel look, mixed man/zone coverage

In this case, you see man on Sherman's side, zone on Maxwell's, nickel in man, and Chancellor lined up in man against Julius Thomas, for instance. This could easily be K.J. Wright switching with Chancellor, as well.

I know that lists Seahawks players and we’re talking about the 49ers, so stay with me. I created this chart, every time you see a name that appears on the left, replace it with the corresponding name on the right and you’re all set.

One thing to note, if you’re picking teams with the list of players above, you’re probably going to take more from the list on the left. For the record, I’m taking the ILB’s on the right, but you can’t choose incorrectly on that one.

So we know these 49ers are going to give us the same kind of defensive looks we saw last week. The 4-3 under/over hybrid with a lot of cover 3 zone and a few man-to-man looks. The 49ers are going to throw in their own twists on these concepts but their base is the same, there’s nothing revolutionary here. That happened 7-8 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, this is absolutely an effective defense in the modern NFL. It’s just that we’ve all seen it before. The important part of a known scheme isn’t the scheme itself but the players that create the match ups we will see on Sunday.


Defensive Line

So far this year the Colts have played against some really talented defensive fronts. The Browns feature 3 of 4 players drafted in the first 32 picks of their respective drafts. The Seahawks have a defensive line that no one would be surprised to see all four or five guys make the pro bowl (I’m not even talking about as alternates).

We haven’t seen a line with this level of talent thus far, which is saying something. Arik Armstead is in his third season out of Oregon, DeForest Buckner in his second also out of Oregon, and Solomon Thomas is a rookie from Stanford. Thomas was drafted third overall, Buckner was taken with the seventh overall selection, and Armstead was taken 17th in 2015. Meanwhile the lowest pick of their starting four is NT Earl Mitchel who was taken with a mid 3rd rounder in 2010, not exactly a late round guy.

So these guys were taken early, so what? Can they play?

  • This Is The Seahawks Offensive Line

In hindsight I shouldn’t have included any clips against this offense, but it is what it is.

  • Nowhere To Go:

This is what it looks like when you play your gap responsibilities. They should have made the tackle for loss and Arik Armstead did screw up by not keeping the edge, but all in all this is an impressive showing from the young front seven.

  • Armstead Is Too High:

Which is easy for me to say, Armstead is 6’7” but if he plays with better leverage he is able to maintain that gap. Solomon Thomas looks like a rookie here. Bowman is in good position but is ultimately hurt by Armstead’s mistake.

  • Impressive Play From Solomon Thomas:

This is exactly what you want to see if you’re the 49ers. The Panthers start by doubling the rookie and then working to the ILB. Ideally you want your DE to eat that double team and allow the ILB to make that tackle. Thomas didn’t hold the tackle there but he made them pay for leaving the block.

That guard has position, leverage and a chip on this play and Thomas just physically dominates him to make the tackle. If he continues this kind of play, you’re either going to have to double him or pay the price for not doubling him. Your call.

  • Dumervil:

I looked to make sure this one went down as a sack for ole’ Elvis, but there were no officially scored sacks in this game. Had to be a flag somewhere downfield, regardless he got around the edge here to get a hit on Jared Goff.

Yesterday I said the the 49ers running backs were the most talented position group of this team. I was incorrect, it’s absolutely this defensive line. If this line can hold their own, the 49ers linebackers will have a chance to fly around and make tackles.


Linebackers: Who Let Them Have Reuben Foster?

NaVorro Bowman has been pretty good for a long time. When most people outside of 49ers fans think of the last generation of 49ers linebackers they think of Patrick Willis, the Silicon Valley tech geek. Most fans don’t think of Bowman, but we should.

Amazing fact of the day: every season Navorro Bowman has started more than 4 games he’s been named first-team all pro.

The problem for Bowman is that his career has been stunted by injuries. I don’t mean the kind of injuries that happen when a guy comes to camp out of shape. I mean the kind of devastating injuries that happen when large men collide while running at full speed.

I’m not going to post a gif or link to the video of his knee bending the wrong direction, but if you’ve watched football in the past five years you’ve probably seen it. Once doctors had reconstructed his lower left leg he came back and promptly tore his Achilles. He’s making his comeback this year, and so far things are going well. I hope he plays poorly on Sunday, but otherwise I’ll be rooting for the guy.

We know that the 49ers took Solomon Thomas with the third overall pick, what they did later in the first round may end up being the better move.

John Lynch moved from the 34th overall pick to the 31st pick for the cost of a 4th round pick to select a guy who was considered a top 10 talent but fell due to character concerns. So the next great 49ers linebacker is a walking character concern named Reuben Foster.

Way to go, John Lynch.

  • No Seriously, Way To Go:

Foster and Bowman both drop into their zones. They allow the catch, which isn’t a big deal considering the coverage call. The impressive part is that open field tackle. In case you hadn’t heard Christian McCaffrey is difficult to tackle. Here he puts a move on Foster and goes to cut up field.

Foster is able to stick his foot in the ground and recover to make the tackle. It won’t show up in the box-score, but this wasn’t an ordinary tackle.

  • Count the 49ers on the ground:

Ultimately this was a poor defense to call given the offensive play, but had the two guys responsible for filling the gap that Todd Gurley ran through not ended up on their back, I’m confident this would have gone differently. As it stands, it was a failure on all levels.

  • Ray Ray Armstrong Sighting:

I wanted to include this double a-gap blitz because if the 49ers have anyone capable of thought and also have the ability to see, they’re going to run this play against our line. If Ryan Kelly can play, I’m not as worried about it, if it’s anyone else, I hope Jacoby Brissett is up to date on his life insurance premiums.

  • Foster With The Fake:

Here we see Foster show blitz before the snap, instead he drops into coverage, follows the quarterback’s eyes and nearly scores six points.

  • Ugh Color Rush:

I’ll start by saying I think these 49ers jerseys are sick. I really like them and if I were a 49ers fan I would absolutely own a black jersey. From the standpoint of breaking down tape, they absolutely suck.

I’m not sure who it was but the MLB on this play needs to do a better job reading and reacting, working through traffic and flowing to the ball. It’s almost like he thought the ball was coming through the A-gap and as a result he didn’t flow playside. Gurley only picked up five yards, but had the MLB played it correctly it would have been stopped for two yards, tops.

This linebacker corps is talented but Foster is young and battling injury and Bowman is trying to come back from two devastating injuries, back to back. These guys are going to flash at times and they’re going to make a few errors too. I expect them to play solid and a couple big plays will come out of these linebackers, hopefully those plays are in our favor.


Secondary: Potential Means You Haven’t Done Anything Yet

That’s a direct quote from my freshman football coach. It’s true for the most part. I think it’s pretty accurate when we look at the 2017 San Francisco 49ers cornerbacks. These guys are young and fairly talented.

Rashard Robinson was a four-star prospect out of high school who went to LSU and started as a true freshman. He is a 6’1” physically gifted corner who excels in press coverage. He fell to the 4th round of the 2016 draft due to the fact that he was kicked off the team at LSU. The feeling people get isn’t that he’s a true problem, more that he just hated school.

The 49ers believe he could be their long term CB1. He’s the definition of low-risk high-reward.

The other San Francisco corners have more concerns on the field than off. Dontae Johnson was another guy drafted in the 4th round back in 2014. He was believed to have the potential to grow into a decent corner in this league. To this point he’s been a disappointment. If he can succeed in the NFL, this is going to be the scheme that leads to that success.

K’Waun Williams looks to line up in the slot after sitting out the 2016 season with an ankle injury that required surgery. Previously he was a solid slot corner for the Browns who cut him after a dispute over the severity of the injury that led to the surgery and recovery. In fact, after being cut, the Chicago Bears claimed him off waivers, but he couldn’t pass the physical. He’s a guy the 49ers believe in. After signing him to a one year “prove it” deal in the off season, John Lynch signed him to a three year extension, just three weeks into the deal.

Their safeties paint a similar picture of potential. Eric Reid was drafted in the first round of the 2013 and despite the now infamous reputation of players drafted that year, Ward has had a solid yet unspectacular career up to this point. He suffered a severe concussion that changed the way he played for a while, but by all accounts he’s back to himself and hopes to be an in the kind of in the box safety that Kam Chancellor is. Time will tell if he’s that kind of guy, but the 49ers thought enough of him to pick up his fifth-year option.

Jimmie Ward started his career at cornerback after being drafted 30th overall in 2014. He moves to free safety this season to play what is largely considered his more natural position, he has dealt with injuries for most of his career. Rounding out the safeties you can expect to see, Jaquiski Tartt should see a lot of time on the field. A second round pick in 2015, Tartt doesn’t start at safety but he will see significant time as a coverage linebacker.

  • Good coverage poor finish:

Dontae Johnson is in good position but shows a lack of refinement at the end of this play leading to a flag. He makes contact downfield which isn’t good but it’s better than it could have been from a guy with the question marks that Johnson has.

  • It’s not legal, but it hurt:

Jimmie Ward. 15 years ago and this hit is applauded. Could have hit him low and it wouldn’t have drawn a flag. Either way that receiver probably hesitates before coming across the middle again.

  • Blanketed:

I put this clip in just to highlight the solid coverage on this play. A shortened field with good coverage makes it really difficult for quarterbacks to complete passes and this play is no different. Even if he had time to throw on this play he would have struggled to find a safe throwing lane.

This secondary has a long way to go to be a unit that anyone is afraid of. I expect to see a few flags and I believe we can confuse these inexperienced corners with well timed route combinations designed to exploit possible breakdowns. TY Hilton could be in for a big day.


Final Thoughts

This defense is littered with talent at every level. With that said, they lack experience, are playing in a new system and have a first time defensive coordinator. These guys are capable of making plays and I won’t be surprised if we see a couple highlight reel plays. At the end of the day I don’t believe that this defense is complete enough to keep Jacoby and The Boys (all rights reserved) from putting up points.