Editor's note: This is Part IV of a four-part series examining the 2017 rookie season of 49ers defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. For Parts I, II and III, visit the home article.
VS. PASS [INSIDE]
Despite a two-year playing career as a defensive tackle in Stanford's 3-4 base scheme, Solomon Thomas has for the most part been a 4-3 end for the 49ers. San Francisco hasn't leaned on him as an interior defender, even though his ability there made him a No. 3 overall draft pick.
Even before the 2017 draft, Thomas and his Stanford coaches concluded he was a better player when in confined areas than out in space, writes Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated. And Thomas added that he would give himself the most snaps as a 3-tech in the NFL.
This is why it was particularly interesting to look at the inside pass-rush snaps he did have as a pro, because not only is it becoming increasingly valuable in the NFL to be able to create interior pressure, but since Thomas as a high draft pick should be right at home at either 4-technique (shading the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle) and anywhere in between.
After digging out rare snaps from eight different games of his in 2017, I could see why Thomas and his coaches would feel so strongly about an interior role.
When the 49ers did give Thomas reps there and the opponent dropped back to pass, Thomas looked promising. He was hurrying and hitting QBs and creating for his teammates. He could bull rush, shoot gaps and take on double teams. It looked like his most natural spot.
Thomas appeared quicker and more confident in his movements against guards and centers than he was when asked to bend or counter as an outside rusher. Since interior O-linemen are typically not as long as tackles, he wasn't at any kind of size disadvantage. When he faced linemen that more or less mirrored his size and build, he won those matchups because he was the more gifted inside player.
As a power player in 1-on-1s, Thomas worked his quick feet and superior upper body strength in unison to generate pressure head on. He showed he could go right through someone.
In Week 14, Thomas (#94) on an inside pass-rush snap knocked Texans center Nick Martin (#66) back into the quarterback's lap. T.J. Yates couldn't set his feet or step into the throw, and the ball came out early and behind his target. The result was an incompletion.
When inside, he attacked with more ferocity, and showed more violent twitch when locked up with an offensive lineman. However, the inexperience of Thomas appeared when he failed to finish plays after he won the get-off and was in position to.
Here are three plays against Carolina, Philadelphia and Seattle in which Thomas affected the quarterback on an inside pass-rush snap, but couldn't quite get off his block and finish.
This wasn't the worst thing to see. Thomas as a rookie appeared quicker and stronger than the average NFL interior lineman. He just needs to develop that killer instinct and learn to finish plays. There was hesitance, lack of commitment to a move or direction, and times where he stopped his feet mid rush. All things that can be worked on, though.
In addition to his power, Thomas' athleticism appeared to work better inside against interior lineman.
In this play against Indianapolis, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had him twist with DeForest Buckner. Thomas' rare dexterity for his size in combination with his strength and leg drive beats center and 2016 first-rounder Ryan Kelly (#78). While Aaron Lynch records the big hit, Thomas is right there in Jacoby Brissett's face.
He's too quick and too strong for most IOL, and the twist or stunt is just another way he can be effectively deployed inside.
Like the play prior, when Thomas shot gaps, it led to pressures and hits on the QB. Here is another gap pressure, minus the twist. Thomas tucks his arm and throws his shoulder into the guard as he shoots the B gap. It's a Justin Smith-like move, and it works well for Thomas. He gets through quick, forces the incompletion and puts Russell Wilson on his back.
This next QB hit was caused by the confusion from Buckner and Dekoda Watson crossing. But, look how quickly Thomas gets in there to deliver a solid hit on Carson Wentz. He's not closed on the quarterback like that on edge snaps, even the ones he won.
In Week 17 at the Rams, two inside pass-rush snaps by Thomas led to sacks by the 49ers, including one with a fumble recovery.
On the first, he showed fast hands and light feet to deflect the initial engagement attempt by the guard, which he followed by occupying two offensive linemen on the play. With the RG-C taken up by Thomas, Cassius Marsh and DeForest Buckner, with favorable 1-on-1s, are both able to get home for the sack/fumble.
Thomas then has the awareness and quicks to peel off the double team and scoop the loose ball.
On the second, Thomas again shows a quick get-off, shooting the gap and pulling the guard out of the play. Elvis Dumervil (#58) crosses the face of the right tackle unblocked and comes in behind Thomas through the area vacated by the guard, and meets Marsh at the quarterback for a sack.
These two plays demonstrate how Thomas as an interior defender creates for others.
But he can also get after it himself. One of Thomas' three sacks on the season came from an inside pass-rush snap. In Week 4 against Arizona, he recovers after being redirected, and uses his athleticism to speed around the guard (#70) and finish off a falling Carson Palmer for his first career sack.
Thomas looks like he may have more upside as an interior pass rusher than as an edge rusher; at least enough promise to warrant more snaps in the future shading guards and centers. He just needs to work on shedding blocks and finishing. As a player off the snap right now, Thomas is advanced, and should only get better.
It was plain to see how disruptive he was when rushing from a 4, 3, 2, 1, or even 0-technique (anywhere between the inside shoulders of the offensive tackles). In those instances, Thomas worked quicker, looked stronger and was more likely to affect the pocket. His standout athletic traits as a defensive tackle looked to be far more effective against similarly-built interior linemen than lengthy tackles that tower over him and are accustomed to facing superior speed and flexibility.
Thomas simply matched up better inside. And forgive the cliché, but he really is that quintessential "phone booth" player.
His power was more effective, and he doesn't have to be nearly as flexible when rushing from an inside technique. Even when Saleh had him twist, or when he tried to get low/skinny and shoot a gap, it did not necessitate a full bend from Thomas. It was a lean at most.
So, with this small yet successful sample of interior snaps, it'll be interesting to see if the 49ers line up Thomas more inside on passing situations in the future.
Media courtesy Icon Sportswire