"Defense wins championships" is how the saying goes. And if that’s true, based off of last year’s performance, the 49ers may be the furthest team away from a Super Bowl across the entire NFL. The team in 2016 finished 32nd in total defense, coming in last in both yards and points allowed. They gave up 100-yard rushers in seven consecutive games as part of a 13-game losing streak. And they ranked among the bottom in defensive DVOA, finishing 28th, according to Football Outsiders.
But despite all that, there’s reason to believe the 49ers may have a very good starting defense on their hands.
The 49ers’ central issue last year was not so much a lack of talent—which is an easy excuse to lean on if one has not watched players individually—as it was a brutal combination of youth, injuries, system and coaching. This year, they have considerably more talent; much of the pre-existing talent is entering critical transitional years, either from a contractual or developmental standpoint; they’re hitting the reset button from a scheme perspective; and they have a promising coaching staff in place.
All in all, it creates a total package that could trigger a potential turnaround as soon as this season. Like tumblers in a lock, everything may finally be aligned in 2017. Or at the very least, the unit could be poised to show forward progress. . .
Through all the losing and turmoil and turnover, the 49ers continued to invest heavily on the defensive side of the ball. Six of San Francisco’s last seven first-round picks were spent on defensive players, and all six project to start this year. Not only that, but they’ve spent very high picks at all three levels of their defensive infrastructure.
Two top-10 picks and one top-20 pick since 2015 have gone to the defensive line (Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas); one first-round pick in 2016 went to a projected top-five player at the linebacker position (Reuben Foster), where they’ve cut it down to three starters and already have four-time All-Pro NaVorro Bowman and Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Malcolm Smith; two first-round picks make up their starting pair of safeties (Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward), and that duo is also backed up by a 2015 second-round pick in Jaquiski Tartt.
Meanwhile, third and fourth-round picks—but first-round talents—in the 2016 draft were had at the cornerback position (Will Redmond, Rashard Robinson).
Between injuries and suspensions, Mississippi State’s Redmond and LSU’s Robinson came into the league as defective prospects, but gifted and highly-rated talents; the latter of which has already proven himself in the NFL. Third-rounder Ahkello Witherspoon out of Colorado was also added in 2017, a lengthy cover man that could’ve snuck into the late first or early second. So, while all the focus is on the front seven, the team also has a ton to work with at the corner spot as well.
It’s quite possible the 49ers feature three top-of-the-draft players at RCB, LCB and in the nickel.
The tantalizing unit is oozing with potential breakout players, as they’ve been stocking up since 2013, but really over the past three drafts. Four alone since 2015—Armstead, Buckner, Foster and Thomas—were all billed as top-10 prospects and potential franchise players on the defensive side of the ball, and Robinson has come on as a surprise addition with All-Pro potential at a very important position.
Overall, it's a complete unit. They just need something to tie it all together. . .
A Staff with Promise
The staff is what makes the difference. It can make or break games, seasons and even careers.
But the 49ers have something to believe in this season.
Not only is Kyle Shanahan going to help keep his defense rested, but the staff he and John Lynch have assembled on that side of ball could be better than people are making it out to be. While most of the defensive staff, including the coordinator, is made up of guys that took promotions to positions they’ve never held, there is a lot of potential among them as they come from strong backgrounds.
New defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is a very articulate, polished disciple of Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, having served three years under him from 2011-13, including a Super Bowl winning season in his final campaign. It was there he coached players like Smith, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin, K.J. Wright and Michael Bennett.
From that coaching tree, Saleh comes on deliberate and mild-mannered as a communicator; he speaks in definites, saying “We will stop the run on this defense.” He wills it rather than saying it’s an “area of focus” or “we have to improve,” which is refreshing for followers of the team who haven’t seen this level of competency since Jim Harbaugh and his staff.
And it’s important to recognize a coach’s demeanor and total ability as a communicator, because after all, that’s part of what makes them effective in their roles. Harbaugh’s then-coordinator Vic Fangio carried himself in a similar way, and commanded the utmost respect from his players.
In that sense, Saleh's coaching presence is reflective of his time with Carroll and an elite group of players.
Saleh also worked most recently under Gus Bradley, who he followed from Seattle to Jacksonville, accepting a promotion to linebackers coach. There he had a chance to get his hands on a group of guys that included Paul Posluszny, Telvin Smith, Myles Jack and Dan Skuta.
“I’ll give a lot of credit to coach Bradley and coach Carroll from a growth standpoint. And to be able to be in all those meetings when they were talking game plan, and they were talking play calling, and the way Pete approached things with Gus,” Saleh said of the two.
He also worked under another current NFL head coach in Falcons’ Dan Quinn, who served as Seattle’s defensive coordinator at the time, bringing Saleh’s apprenticeship total to three (Carroll, Bradley, Quinn). Prior to that, Saleh spent a half decade in Houston, serving in three different roles, having been promoted twice.
It was there that Saleh worked with an All-Pro linebacker by the name of DeMeco Ryans.
Ryans and Saleh had a parallel relationship. Saleh joined the team in 2005 as a defensive intern and didn’t leave for the Seahawks until 2011. Ryans was drafted by the Texans in 2006 and didn’t leave until 2012. Ryans is now a defensive quality control coach for the 49ers, and Saleh thinks he’ll be a head coach some day.
“I’ll be asking him for a job, I’m sure, long from now,” Saleh said of Ryans. “He’s got that type of football IQ, that type of presence and he’s as knowledgeable as it gets.”
The 49ers also brought in burgeoning position coach Jeff Zgonina. The former NFL defensive tackle spent last year as the assistant defensive line coach with the Giants. It was there that Zgonina worked with a unit that ranked second in the league, allowing 17.8 points per game. That unit also finished tied for third in rushing yards allowed per game (88.6), a significant draw to the 49ers, which also intend on fielding four-man lines like New York.
Prior to that, Zgonina was in Houston where he coached J.J. Watt during his second All-Pro season in 2013.
Zgonina now has three first-rounders to work with in Armstead, Buckner and Thomas. He also has an interesting project in Aaron Lynch, a long, powerful pass rusher that’s had his motivation questioned by media. Interior defensive lineman Earl Mitchell also has a prior relationship with coach Zgonina, having played under him in Houston. This group as a standalone piece can evolve into the core of a very good defense.
But these three new additions to San Francisco's staff could help optimize the stockpiling talent.
Beneficial Scheme Change
The 49ers are also implementing a scheme change, which they have not done on that side of the ball since 2007.
But Saleh runs a defense that’s proven to work. The Seahawks have built an era off it, it was the difference in the Falcons as they made their first Super Bowl run since 1999, and Jacksonville has one of the up-and-coming units in the NFL. While the 49ers are bringing in a 4-3 base defense with a Cover 3 akin to the systems run by Seattle, Atlanta and Jacksonville, it will have new, unique wrinkles, according to Saleh.
Now, scheme changes are drastic, and can produce steep results one way or the other, but the 49ers’ personnel looks best suited for this change.
Armstead, Buckner and Thomas' talents in particular would have been wasted as 3-4 ends. They’re so large, yet athletic enough to be incredibly disruptive one-gapping in a 4-3, where they don’t have to waste snaps absorbing protection schemes. The only reason it was wise before was because the 49ers had strong, wide-bodied players in Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, who weren’t nearly as dynamic.
They were power players with veteran technique.
And with Aldon Smith long gone and a 33-year-old Ahmad Brooks, there’s no forceful 3-4 outside linebacker for Armstead, Buckner and Thomas to free up anyway. They are now the pass rush.
A look at Thomas' ability as an interior rusher:
Armstead crashing down on the guard from the right end spot for a sack:
The 49ers immediately create more opportunity by committing to the future and turning away from their old model, which they simply didn’t have the personnel for anymore. All of San Francisco’s recently acquired talent, including several highly-drafted players under 25 years old, are built to thrive in a 4-3 front or Cover 3 secondary.
And Buckner, for one, is excited, saying, “It’s one gap and we’re going. Off the snap, I’m not two-gapping, you know, I’m not holding onto blocks, I’m more avoiding now.
“And I’m excited about that.”
Armstead will be able to excel similarly, and Thomas can function as an Aaron Donald, Mike Daniels type of player in the middle. Lynch will also be in a place to showcase his talents, as he reverts back to his Notre Dame and South Florida style as a hand-in-the-ground defender. Jimmie Ward, a college safety, also moves back to his natural position, as he vies for the starting single-high safety role.
It also takes away deep coverage assignments from Eric Reid, who had been struggling there as of late, and plays to his strengths as an athletic hitter. He comes down as a "box safety" to blitz, disrupt routes off the snap and support the run.
When asked if this defense could finish top 15 in 2017, Saleh smirked, and replied “I never put a number on it.
“And the reason I never put a number on it is because you don’t want to get lost in numbers. If we show up every day, and we operate the way we’re capable of, and do the things we’re supposed to do, and we operate as men, and we operate in our style, we’ll get better. How much better I can’t tell you.”
Breakout production has been predicted for several players, though.
We’re going to find out if Rashard Robinson is the real deal as he transitions to Year 2 and leaned on as CB1. We’re very likely to see a significant jump from both Buckner and Armstead. If he plays a full 16-game season, Reuben Foster has a shot at Defensive Rookie of the Year, as does teammate Solomon Thomas. And then there’s Bowman. All six of these projected starters have All-Pro ceilings.
Now, don’t expect the 49ers to have all the pieces yet. They don’t.
They don’t have a true LEO, and are going to throw all their players into a competition and see who comes out looking best. The safety production from Ward and Reid will be a huge question mark until the season gets underway. And then there’s a handful of ancillary players like Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Dontae Johnson, Ronald Blair, Pita Taumoepenu and Aaron Lynch that could really boost this unit overall or leave it with soft-as-tissue depth, and perhaps more holes than they thought.
In all honesty, there’s too much left to the gods to accurately predict what happens, but the 49ers look to have one of the great young defensive corps in the NFL, up there with San Diego and Jacksonville. It’s possible they show first signs of a turnaround this year, perhaps going from dead last to middle of the pack, or dare we say, top 15.