© Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
The 49ers spent top dollar on edge rusher Dee Ford, and it’s easy to see why.
In 2018, they set all-time NFL lows with two interceptions and seven turnovers, unfathomable numbers no matter how many times you read them. The most traceable reason: a lack of pass rush to create turnovers or bait quarterbacks into making errant throws. The 49ers tallied just 37 sacks, seven of which came in one week. Cassius Marsh’ 5.5 sacks and 39 pressures led all 49ers edge rushers.
Ford specialized in tormenting quarterbacks with Kansas City this past season. He racked up 13 sacks, tied for the ninth most in the NFL. His seven forced fumbles and 78 pressures each led the league. He pressured the opposing quarterback on more than 15 percent of drop-backs. The Chiefs ranked eighth in the NFL with 27 turnovers and tied for ninth with 15 interceptions.
This is the kind of signing — even for the hefty price of potentially $87.5 million over five years — the 49ers needed to make.
The 49ers envisioned Ford starring in the scheme the Chiefs didn’t. They will switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, deeming him an unnatural fit as a true defensive end, despite his experience in a 4-3 during his Auburn days. The 49ers deploy some version of the 4-3, Cover-3 zone scheme that Seattle popularized earlier this decade.
Ford is custom made for new 49ers defensive coach Kris Kocurek’s system, designed to rush the quarterback via a wide nine formation. This means the widest edge defender lines up well beyond the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle or tight end. The idea is to equip edge rushers with the maximum amount of space and leverage to reach the quarterback. It has worked. During his eight-year stint as the Detroit Lions defensive line coach, Kocurek’s units compiled the fourth-most sacks in the league.
Kocurek’s system will highlight Ford’s speed.
“The two qualities when you think of Kris Kocurek, you think of the wide nine and you think of guys who, when the ball’s snapped, they’re going,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said earlier this month at the NFL Combine. “The big deal is ‘cut it loose.’”
Ford will slot in at the LEO, or weak side edge, spot, where he will line up against opposing left tackles. He solidifies San Francisco’s defensive line rotation. DeForest Buckner will anchor the interior. Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead will play the big end spot and periodically move to the interior. As the roster currently stands, D.J. Jones will slot in at nose tackle on base downs.
With Ford, Buckner, Thomas, and Armstead, the 49ers have four first-round picks, all 27 years old or younger, on their defensive line. That doesn’t include potential first-round pick Nick Bosa or Josh Allen in April’s draft. The collective athleticism and versatility will allow defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to tinker with varying personnel and formations.
The potential seen in Ford as a first-round pick in 2015 was realized this past season. He is the definition of a speed rusher who habitually blows past opposing linemen.
His first sack of the 2018 season was unlike any of the other 12 because he lined up across the left guard. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones moved to Ford’s typical outside position. This is one way the 49ers could deploy Ford, with Buckner acting as Jones.
Kyle Shanahan praised the Chiefs pass rushers — including Ford, Jones, and Justin Houston — ahead of their Week-3 matchup. The Chiefs went up 28 points in the first half partly because those players stymied San Francisco’s offensive drives with four sacks.
On third-and-11, Ford, lining up as a nine technique, blew past Joe Staley for the sack.
This type of sack, in which Ford turns the corner before the offensive tackle has time to turn his hips, resurfaced throughout his breakout season. He always looks to pop the ball loose from the quarterback.
Opposing quarterbacks know the threat of Ford’s speed, forcing them to make their reads quicker, which can lead to faulty throws and interceptions.
Ford doesn’t just run by opposing linemen. He mixes in a “long arm” move to push back opposing tackles as he bends around the corner. He also uses a euro move to get offensive linemen off-balance before blowing past them.
In the below clip, Ford completely shakes Jaguars left tackle Josh Walker with a similar euro-chop move. Quarterback Blake Bortles felt Ford’s pressure, panicked, and threw a bad interception on the goal-line.
These are the types of plays the 49ers didn’t make in 2018.
Adding one player won’t solve all of the defensive issues, but Ford addresses San Francisco’s biggest weakness. The 49ers have also reportedly signed Kwon Alexander, a rangy, physical linebacker to pair alongside Fred Warner, to a four-year deal. Alexander will add playmaking to the middle of the field.
Throughout the opening weeks of the 2018 season, the 49ers defense struggled to get off the field on third down. In Week 2, the Lions went 4-5 on third-down conversions in the fourth quarter. In Week 3, the Chiefs converted at least one third down on all five of their touchdown drives. In Week 4, all three of the Chargers’ touchdowns came on third down, which, in a two-point 49ers loss, stings.
Ford’s pass-rushing prowess will help the 49ers defense end drives. Seven of Ford’s 13 sacks in 2018 came on third or fourth down. That doesn’t include the third-down plays he disrupted by pressuring the quarterback.
The 49ers also held second-half leads in nine games this past season. They won just four of them. Their inability to close, which Shanahan has lamented, wasn’t limited to one or two things. But the presence of an edge-rusher like Ford would have helped prevent the last-minute defeats against Green Bay and Arizona. For example, Ford sacked Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen on a fourth down as the Cardinals trailed by 12 in the fourth quarter this past season. The play all but sealed the game.
Look at any of the 49ers’ defensive struggles from 2018, and Ford impacts them in some way. The defense isn’t a finished product, but it has improved at its most important position by adding one of the league’s premier edge rushers.