49ers' pass rush excels during three-game win streak

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Friday, December 1, 2023

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Not much has gone wrong for the San Francisco 49ers' defense during its recent return to being among the league's best units.

But the one complaint -- albeit a nitpicky one -- speaks volumes about how that defense has reasserted itself the past three weeks.

"It's funny, after the game nobody has any idea what their stats are," defensive end Nick Bosa said. "That's a good problem to have."

More specifically, the 49ers are having trouble figuring out which players are getting credit for the sacks that have been coming in bunches during San Francisco's three-game win streak. In blowout wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks, the Niners have 15 sacks (second in the league), a 52.4% pass rush win rate (third) and 34 pressures (tied for fourth).

That production has helped the Niners surge back to the top of the NFL in fewest points allowed per game (15.5) and in the top five in yards allowed per game (295.3) and defensive expected points added (49.81) for the season. There are plenty of reasons for the Niners' defensive uptick, but it starts exactly where they want it to: up front.

"I think how much we're rushing as a group has changed," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "After we came back from the bye week, we've moved a little bit better. Obviously having Chase (Young) helps the group, just the depth of it. When we weren't getting all the sacks, I still felt we were getting to the quarterback and hitting him. ... I think our coverage has gotten better, too."

Under Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, the Niners have never been shy about their desire to build a front four that sets the tone for the entire team.

They've poured copious resources into it, whether it be drafting Bosa No. 2 overall in 2019, signing defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to an $84 million deal in March, or trading for Young before October's deadline. The investments have been so rich that when the returns don't jump off the stat sheet many wonder what, exactly, is going wrong.

Such was the case during their three-game losing streak in October when the Niners were 25th in the NFL in pressure rate (25.2%), 26th in sacks per drop back (4.2%) and 13th in QB contact percentage (23.1%). Those numbers led to a drop-off in points allowed (24.0 per game, tied for 25th in the league), yards per play allowed (6.0, 30th) and rushing yards per attempt (4.5, 26th).

To get back on track, the Niners and coordinator Steve Wilks made a number of tweaks during their bye. It started with the Oct. 31 deal in which they sent a 2024 third-round compensatory pick to the Washington Commanders for Young.

"I guess ever since we got Chase Young things kind of flipped around, didn't they?" linebacker Fred Warner said.

The Niners' hope was that Young would complement Bosa, his former Ohio State teammate, and form a starting front four -- along with defensive tackles Hargrave and Arik Armstead -- that would make opposing offenses have to constantly choose whom to double team.

The early returns have been good. Young has picked up where he left off in Washington, providing a pass rush win rate (20.5%) that ranks 13th among all edge rushers. He has 1.5 sacks as a 49er and has been credited with four sacks created and an interception created, both ranking second in the league since his arrival. When Young, Hargrave, Armstead and Bosa are on the field together, they're getting pressure on a whopping 61% of dropbacks.

And while Young isn't starting just yet, he has impressed with how he has developed as a run defender and his willingness to take on extra blockers to create one-on-one opportunities for others. Which means the Niners can increase his workload as the season progresses.

Finally healthy and contributing to a contender, Young says playing for the Niners is the most fun he has had since he was a rookie in 2020.

"It's just guys flying around, guys loving to hit, guys just loving to do their jobs," Young said. "I'm getting coached real hard, another thing I love. It's just the culture."

Wilks has also made schematic and personnel adjustments that have tied things together. Much was made of Wilks' move from the booth to the sideline. Though it's hard to quantify the value of the move itself, there's no denying the improved results.

Of more importance, however, is Wilks plugging in Ambry Thomas as an outside cornerback with Deommodore Lenoir moving into the slot in nickel packages. That has made the Niners a bit faster on the back end and allowed Wilks to show more coverage looks pre-snap.

The Niners have also gotten back to some of the basic staples of their defense. They are blitzing on 5% fewer dropbacks than they were during the losing streak, leaning on the front four to generate pressure and tying their coverage to the pass rush by playing more aggressive at the line of scrimmage -- or pretending they are with various disguises.

That explains why the Niners are getting home more during the recent winning streak even though opposing quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball quicker (2.62 seconds to throw) than they were during the Niners' losing streak (2.73 seconds).

"What we tried to be able to do is just work on our disguise a little bit more and try to create some confusion to where maybe he thought we were coming where we're not coming, and then vice versa, we're sitting back and all of a sudden we bring pressure," Wilks said.

As Niners defensive line coach Kris Kocurek is always quick to point out, you have to earn the right to rush the passer. That starts by stopping the run, another challenge that was presented over the bye. They've responded by giving up just 3.8 yards per rush and 71 rushing yards per game, both of which rank in the top five in the NFL over the past three weeks.

"Stopping the run is huge and just setting edges, getting off blocks inside and creating negative plays which makes playing defense a lot easier," Bosa said.

Of course, all of that production doesn't mean much this week, as the Niners' defensive line faces its toughest challenge of the season on Sunday: the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive line in a rematch of last year's NFC Championship Game (4:25 p.m. ET, Lincoln Financial Field, FOX). Bosa called it the best line the Niners will face this year, and Hargrave, who spent the previous three seasons with the Eagles, said Philadelphia has "about five Pro Bowlers on one offensive line."

All of which makes Sunday a good test to see just how far the Niners' front -- and, by extension, the defense -- has come over the past month. If all goes according to plan, they'll spend the flight home from Philadelphia arguing over which players get credit for which sacks.

Nobody seems to mind much so long as the credit ultimately stays between their walls.

"That's all that matters," defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. "It's a friendly competition, but that's how you kind of need it to be for a championship team."

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