© Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
INDIANAPOLIS — The 49ers’ have taken a top-down approach in confronting their pass-rush crisis. While the talent inarguably needs upgrading, the system needed restructuring.
The new one is built on one thing: reaching the quarterback.
Earlier this month, the 49ers fired Jeff Zgonina, the team’s defensive line coach for the past two seasons. During that time, the 49ers compiled 67 sacks (seven of which came in a 34-3 win over the Raiders this past season). For reference, the Pittsburgh Steelers led the league with 108 sacks during that span.
Pass-rushing has remained an issue, despite the 49ers spending three first-round picks in the past four years on defensive linemen. And while none of those players — Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas — are true edge rushers, the collective lack of pass-rushing success seemingly pointed to a system-wide problem.
Enter: Kris Kocurek.
One week after firing Zgonina, the 49ers hired Kocurek, one of the most respected defensive line coaches in the league. Kocurek came from Miami, where he spent one season. In his eight previous years coaching the Detroit Lions, their defensive line compiled 250 sacks, the fourth-most in the NFL during that span. He will work alongside Chris Kiffin, who was hired last February as San Francisco’s pass-rush specialist.
“We wanted to bring in something else in terms of pass rush, coming off the ball, and that’s kind of what Kris has excelled in,” Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday. “I think it will match up good with the rest of our seven.”
Kocurek plans to deploy wide-nines, which means stretching the defensive line to create more pass-rush opportunities. A nine-technique aligns himself well wide of the offensive tackle, and on the outside shoulder of the tight end, if there is one. The wide-nine is meant to isolate edge rushers, particularly speed players, so they can rush the quarterback in space.
Over the past two days, at the annual NFL Combine, Shanahan and John Lynch have raved about Kocurek. They have brought him up unprovoked when being asked about other topics.
“The great thing about Kris Kocurek, and what he is going to do, and what we wanted to do, and why we are interested in him, he cuts these guys loose,” Lynch said Thursday. “They are going to be playing with a quick trigger and getting after it. Those are guys that can get to the quarterback.”
Last year, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh got creative to try maximizing the old scheme. The 49ers ran stunts designed to disrupt and confuse opposing offensive lines, rather than all-out rushing the backfield. Buckner, easily the 49ers’ best defensive lineman, rotated just about everywhere, from the zero-technique (lining up across the center) all the way to the seven-technique (on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle). Buckner posted a career year (12 sacks), but he didn’t have much help. The edge rushers as a whole combined for 14 sacks.
The next step is finding game-changing edge rushers, or “closers,” as Lynch and Shanahan say. Fortunately for the 49ers, the 2019 draft class is loaded with pass rushers. Some draft experts predict four defensive linemen will be selected in the first five picks, which has never happened.
“I hear people talking, I have been doing this a couple years, but they’re talking about eight years, this is as strong a class in the last eight years at defensive line,” Lynch said. “I concur. It’s not just exclusively at one position. There’s inside guys; there’s outside guys.”
With Buckner, Armstead, and Thomas anchoring the interior, the 49ers are looking for a speed rusher to complement that trio. Lynch said the LEO (weak-side edge) position will change a bit under Kocurek. That spot befitted slimmer, faster rushers in San Francisco’s old scheme. Lynch repeated Thursday that the 49ers are looking for “powerful players” at the LEO spot.
“Hopefully if you’re picking real high, it’s power, it’s bend, it’s all of it,” Lynch said, perhaps alluding to the 49ers’ thought process with the second overall pick in April’s draft.
Ultimately, installing a new system will take some time. Lynch admits he is still learning the intricacies of Kocurek’s system. But Lynch and Shanahan have expressed the utmost confidence in Kocurek and his ability to elevate a defensive line that has recently underperformed.
“We are still learning it ourselves,” Lynch said. “Kris Kocurek will talk to you for hours about it. This is a guy who is energetic about football. The only other d-line coach I have been around, Rod Marinelli is one of the best, and Kris Kocurek has that reputation, and they’re passionate about what they do. There is an energy that I love.”