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49ers have simplified their playbook on defense and this is what it means

SANTA CLARA — We learned something new about the 49ers’ new defensive scheme from Ahmad Brooks Wednesday after training camp practice.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is running a simplified system. The 49ers are using about 10 play calls on defense. Brooks told us in previous seasons, the defense has used up to 25-30 play calls per game.

This is new to the 49ers, but not not new to Saleh and the Seattle system. The Seahawks famously used a simple scheme in their 43-8 Super Bowl romping over Peyton Manning’s Broncos in 2014.

The purpose of simplifying the playbook is to help players play faster. To think less. The 49ers can now focus on the tendencies of their opponents more than constantly adjusting their own play calls prior to the snap. The main goal of this? Less play calls will equal less mental errors.

“We’ve installed 10 defenses and that’s it,” Brooks said. “That’s it. That’s what we’re going to be running throughout the season.”

Undeniably, this will be more of a line-them-up-and-play defense. Unlike other defensive coordinators around the NFL, it sounds like Saleh isn’t going to try and constantly out-scheme opponents. In that Super Bowl win, Seattle stayed in Cover-1 or Cover-3 nearly the entire night. This isn’t a conceptually flashy defense.

“It’s not necessarily how hard it is, it’s how sound it is,” Shanahan said about Seattle’s system on KNBR in February. “They make you work for everything. It’s always an eight man front. It’s very tough to run the ball against. And they’re very sound in their coverage. You can get some completions and things like that, but they make you work all the way down the field.”

Here’s where the 49ers could run into problems: personnel wise, this isn’t Seattle’s defense. Rashard Robinson has a long ways to go until he’s Richard Sherman. Same for Jimmie Ward as Earl Thomas and Eric Reid as Kam Chancellor. The Seahawks can use a simplified scheme because they have elite players shutting down offensive weapons. Shanahan and John Lynch may feel like their defensive line will be comparable to the Seahawks’ unit, but the crux of Seattle’s success is because of their secondary.

Whether it works or not in Year 1, I’m told players are thrilled about the scheme change. There were private grumblings last season that responsibilities between various players overlapped, causing communication issues. There was too much diagnosing of plays on the field and less reacting. Under former defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, the 49ers allowed the third-most rushing yards in NFL history (166 ypg). Injuries ravaged the unit, but the scheme — once a juggernaut 10 years ago with Rex Ryan’s Jets — was no longer player friendly.

Last season’s over-complicated debacle is not the primary reason for switching to a more simplified scheme, but it could pay dividends. Jimmie Ward will be able to focus on deep safety rather than sliding back and forth between outside and nickel corner. Players like Arik Armstead and Aaron Lynch have been given more defined roles. Rather than having to switch their positions constantly throughout the game, the pair of youngsters will focus on being pass rushers.

“It’s definitely helping,” Brooks said of the simplifications. “You can see that the momentum in practice is a little bit amped up compared to last year. Guys are excited about this year.”

So instead of exotic blitz packages with a ton of moving parts, the 49ers will rely on winning the line of scrimmage. Instead of constantly mixing in man and zone coverage, the 49ers will likely lean toward one for a particular opponent. Defense this year will be less about confusing the offense and more about playing together.

“For us in this defense, because we don’t do a lot of scheme,” Saleh explained Wednesday, “but emphasis will always go back to fundamentals and representing the style that we’re trying to create.”

Keep this storyline bookmarked. When you start with a simplified scheme, it becomes difficult to ask players to do more later in the season. For now, give these new 49ers coaches credit: they are trying something different on defense after three straight seasons of underachieving.


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