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49ers Notebook: DeMeco Ryans’ defensive philosophy and Jimmie Ward, future podcaster?

© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t tend to learn all that much from organized team activities. But we don’t learn nothing, if that makes sense. Wednesday provided the first chance to talk to newly-promoted defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, the first look at quarterbacks not named Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance, and a single-day flash that seemed significant for a veteran receiver.

All this and more in your 49ers Notebook.

DeMeco Ryans, defensive coordinator

Ryans joined the 49ers in 2017 after a stellar, two-Pro Bowl playing career. He began as a quality control coach and was promoted the following year to inside linebackers coach. It took four years for him to make his way to a defensive coordinator job at age 36. Regardless of his pedigree as a player, and the praise he’s received from now-Jets head coach Robert Saleh (who said it’s a matter of time before Ryans is a head coach), that’s an astoundingly quick rise.

The main question for Ryans is how his defense and approach will differ from Saleh’s. He didn’t get into specifics on Wednesday, but spoke generally about the type of identity he’s trying to create. What stood out was the repetition of the terms “aggressive” and “attacking.”

“Our defense will be a fast, attacking, aggressive defense,” Ryans said. “There will be some of the similar scheme things that we’ve done in the past. You will see some wrinkles, you will see my brand of football on it. Like I talked about earlier, I want to be known as an attacking defensive line. Our D-Line is going to attack. Our linebackers and secondary, they’re going to play with base fundamentals. We’re going to play off our defensive line. We’re going to let our D-Line just get off the ball and attack, and we’re going to clean up things behind them, but we will be a more, I feel like aggressive, attacking defense.”

Yeah, that’s quite a healthy dose o’ coach speak. Every coach wants football dudes who play hard, who play fast, who run through the ball, who attack, and so on, into oblivion. But if we’re to take Ryans at face value here, and pick apart how he’s trying to define his defensive philosophy in comparison to Saleh’s, and as a recent player, it would make sense to prepare for an increase in blitzes.

Saleh increased his use of blitzes last year substantially from the 2019 season, but that was out of necessity. Arik Armstead wasn’t getting to quarterbacks at all. It was Kerry Hyder and approximately no one else, and for San Francisco to develop pressure, blitzes were required.

The 49ers blitzed 20.9 percent of the time in 2019 (29th) and 33.6 percent of the time in 2021 (10th). If they hang around closer to that 2020 number with Nick Bosa back and Samson Ebukam in the mix, that would amount to a more deliberate, rather than necessary increase in blitz usage.

It could also mean the 49ers play more aggressive at the line of scrimmage in terms of press coverage, and potentially increasing the use of big nickel packages to get more safeties on the field. That would create more opportunity to disguise coverages and blitzes, confuse offenses, and create positive mismatches.

Again, a few words in June might not mean all that much, but there are a number of ways to attack, and Ryans isn’t just going to throw out a carbon copy of Saleh’s defense.

Jimmie Ward, podcaster?

When Jimmie Ward wants to talk, he’ll talk. And he sure as hell talked on Wednesday. He was in an admittedly great mood, poking fun at some reporters who he felt hadn’t given him his due, and criticized him unfairly. But it’s never antagonistic or abrasive with Ward; it’s always smiling and with an earnest answer.

He was at his best; both hilarious and insightful.

Asked about potentially creating more turnovers — a point of contention throughout his career, with just two career interceptions and none since 2016 — he gave the eye roll.

“Oh man, this conversation, ok. Man. Ah, let me think of a good answer for you for this, let me pause for you, wait a minute. Let me see. Okay, I got it… Hopefully. That’s all I got… I don’t really care about turnovers. I got paid without having a bunch of turnovers and if I ever get a bunch of turnovers, then hopefully they can call me the best safety in the league. But until then, I’m gonna do what I was doing last year and the year before that.”

Turnovers, to anyone who watches the game, are mostly a product of circumstance. Ward forced two fumbles last season, but doesn’t often get chances in one-on-one coverage because he’s rarely targeted.

Ward was equally entertaining when he got a question from one Bay Area reporter whose podcast he watches, but who he feels doesn’t show him enough love. He also shouted out another reporter who he follows on Instagram for some lovely vacation photos.

Which begs the question: His former secondary partner, Richard Sherman, has a podcast with Chris Collinsworth. Why not Ward?

“Podcast? I don’t know. One day,” Ward said. “You gotta get me in the mood. Like right now I’m in the mood. Sometimes I’m not in the mood. Sometimes I slur my words when I’m not in the mood. I don’t really answer the questions, but today, you got me in the mood so you know, I’m a little talkative right now.”

And he was poignant, too.

Asked about his role as a leader with three newly-drafted rookies and a handful of other young defensive backs on the roster, he waxed poetic.

“If I gotta be an asshole, I know I gotta do it,” Ward said. “I feel like Sherm taught me a lot… If I gotta be an asshole, I’ll be an asshole. If I gotta be a big brother, I’ll be a big brother. If I gotta be a coach, I’ll be a coach. But at the end of the day, I can’t do none of that if I don’t lead by example.”

Other notes: Sanu shows out, tight end addition, and Kinlaw’s life as a wildman

  • Injuries: Of those injuries below, all the lower body injuries were categorized as strains or mild strains and as precautionary absences. It’s way too early to stress about this stuff, but it did mean that the wide receiver corps looked… thin.

  • The most notable part of Wednesday’s practice was that Mohamed Sanu looked every bit like the old Mohamed Sanu and not… an old Mohamed Sanu. By my count, he caught at least five passes between 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills, and given that reporters were on the far side of the field and my handwriting is suspect, there could have been another reception. Either way, it was the most for any receiver. Nate Sherfield was next with three catches. Sanu, at age 31, has a clear-cut chance to make the roster and replace Kendrick Bourne as that third-down slot option. There have been very legitimate questions about his health, and those aren’t gone, but he sure as hell looked like his old self on Wednesday. Sherfield, by the way, made an impression, too. He made a very athletic catch on a Trey Lance missile, and has a legitimate chance to make the roster if he continues showing out this way through camp.
  • The 49ers signed MyCole Pruitt, a tight end who PFF ranked the seventh-best run blocker amongst other qualified tight ends last season. San Francisco’s current corps behind George Kittle of Ross Dwelley, Charlie Woerner and Josh Pederson is an anemic blocking situation. Dwelley and Woerner were horrendous, bottom-tier run blockers (Dwelley, too, as a pass blocker). Pruitt should provide help in that aspect.
  • Javon Kinlaw posted a video on his Instagram story over the summer with a grin and a squirrel in his mouth. It looked like this:

He was asked about it on Wednesday and said, basically, it’s just something he does.


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