Previewing the 49ers Defense

This Sunday the Kansas City Chiefs will face the San Fransisco 49ers in Super Bowl 54. During the regular season, the 49ers posted the number one ranked defense in the NFL for yards gained as well as rushing yards while ranking 6th in passing defense. Led by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh they are an extremely physical group boasting one of the best front sevens in all of football. They command a lot of respect and have been phenomenal this year. Time to take a look at what makes them tick as well as look at a few possible vulnerabilities in their game.

San Fransico’s ability to blitz has been one of their team’s biggest strengths. Here in week 1, against the Seattle Seahawks, they show how well they use their pass rushers. They also show how they disguise coverages out of their blitzes. They used this crossbuck blitz frequently this game. During this play they bring it from depth with a delay as well as a spy on Wilson. This play is the epitome of their defense. Great pressure forces an off time throw despite having DK Metcalf being open on the underneath route.

Here again, they bring great pressure. and by walking up multiple players they keep the offense honest by not knowing who, if any will come, or if they will all come or drop into pressure. However, with the man on man coverage by the corners gives Metcalf a good situation. Russell Wilson steps up in the pocket and connects with Metcalf who was open close to the sideline. When the 49ers cant get home on their rush that is where they find trouble.

Below is another variation of the crossbuck blitz, this time it comes from more of a middle spot on the field. The Seahawks RB misses the free runner and Nick Bosa bull rushes his way to cut down the pocket and collapse on Wilson, as he is able to get the ball off but again the timing is thrown off. The Chiefs should expect to see a high percentage of blitzes on third down in this one.

San Fransisco does mix their coverages between zone and man well. Here they show blitz early but both middle walk-ups fall back into their zone on this third down. The Seahawks OL just pushes the rush past the pocket giving Wilson a chance to step up and find the man not accounted for in the zone coverage. Wilson’s mobility gave the 49ers problems at times in both games they played against the Seahawks this year.

Deforest Buckner comes up with a nice one on one move here for the sack. The right side of the D line takes the Seahawks attention with Nick Bosa working a stunt. Buckner swats down the guard’s hands and is able to collapse on Wilson for the big sack. Every member of the 49er DL is more than capable of wrecking an offensive line on any given Sunday. The Chiefs will need to bring their A-game up front, and Andy Reid will need to have some answers for the pass rush.

Bosa is a game wrecker in the passing game but he also is an animal in the run game. Here on 4th and short, he shucks away the TE as the entire d-line goes to pinch their inside gap. As Marshawn Lynch has to avoid the backer, Bosa is able to attack him for the big run stuff on 4th down.

This play would be nullified due to a holding penalty but it does show where some weaknesses lie in the 49ers game. As the clip below shows they can be beaten in their zone coverages. They don’t give up many shots on the outside but the inside WRs to slots can give them some trouble.

Wilson again hurts them with his mobility. The delayed corner blitz and drop into a spy are enough to make Wilson have to scramble but he takes advantage of the space, and as Metcalf starts to come back he finds space and makes a nice catch for a big chunk of yards. These are the kind of one on one matchups the Chiefs will need to take advantage of if they want to win.

What really sets the 49ers apart with their pass rush is they find so many different ways to get their rushers to the QB. Bosa delivers a shot here, one that I don’t think Wilson was ready for. They drop a man off the LOS while bringing pressure off the edges. Bosa comes off the Super Loop untouched as Seattle was worried about the threat of outside pressure. A giant hit, and it shows the violent nature of the 49er’s D.

While the San Fransico secondary has its flaws Richard Sherman is still an elite man to man defender. Drew Breese throws a great pass, but Sherman gets his head around in time and his able to swat the ball away. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs receiving core will need to be aware of Sherman’s presence at all times.

Nick Bosa gets the pressure here blowing through the pulling guard to force a quick throw from Breese. Press coverage of the WRs gives them a chance to get their pass rush going but it’s when the plays are extended that they can find themselves in some trouble.

Below the 49ers are in zone coverage, paying very close attention to Saints All-Pro WR Michael Thomas. Thomas Jared Cook uses his motion to tell Breese the 49ers are in the zone, while he then outruns the coverage on a fly for six. The 49ers like a fistfight in a phone booth type of game, but they show some vulnerability against the spread schemes and some three strong passing concepts.

This play is successful zone coverage by the 49ers but it’s Bosa who makes the play and shuts it down quickly. Bosa defeated two blockers on his way to pressuring Breese into a quick throw away. The 49ers like to get the ball out of the QB’s hands as quickly as possible, which is the major emphasis of their D. The quicker the play is over the better off they will be.

This touchdown from Breese to Thomas is a work of art to open up the one on one. The high safety has to go over to cover the slot on the opposite side. The Saints run some 2 man games but Thomas has an excellent route to create separation and score. This resembles the kind of routes the Chiefs have liked to run with Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins.

An interesting tidbit I found from watching the film, but in this no-huddle situation, there is massive miscommunication as no one covers Ted Ginn! San Fransisco was in very few situations this year where they were in a no-huddle defense but it appears as Robert Saleh’s crew were not all on the same page. This kind of mistake can be a killer in big games.

San Fransisco gets a little too cute in trying to disguise their pressures here. They drop men back at the snap into a zone but the Saints had a perfect counter to stopping them drawn up. The three fly patterns and attention paid to Thomas opened up the Digg underneath. A few missed tackles later and it was six for the Saints. The Saints were the most loaded team the 49ers played in the regular season and it seemed like at times they struggled with trying to give attention to Micheal Thomas while also taking away all the other options the Saints had. This game could be a blueprint for how the Chiefs should choose to attack.

Overall the 49ers defense is outstanding. It is only fitting the leagues most physical defense will face the highest-flying offense, both playing peak football on the games biggest stage. No team in football is perfect, every team has flaws. The Super Bowl will be about who can use their strengths to expose the flaws of the opposing team. To attack the 49ers defense the Chiefs will need to keep Mahomes clean and find good ways to spread the wealth around, keeping the 49ers defense honest in the process.