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How the 49ers evolved without sacrificing identity, and could ride high to another Super Bowl

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The identity of the San Francisco 49ers has been stated explicitly by the organization’s leadership. This is a team built around a dominant pass rush and a physical, explosive run game.

Everything else revolves around those two pillars.

This is not the team that dominated in 2019 en route to a Super Bowl loss. But it’s far more mutable now, more chameleon-like in its ability to adapt to compromising circumstances, which are often self-created.

If 2019 was a spin on a freshly-paved road in a Tesla, 2021 has been a horse-and-buggy ride on cobblestones.

But while the level of difficulty has increased, not much has fundamentally changed. There’s still Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and D.J. Jones as lynchpins of the defensive line, a physical offensive line creating just enough space for its runners, and Jimmy Garoppolo delivering mostly short, on-time balls in implausibly small windows, providing a yards-after-catch trampoline for his receivers.

Same as it ever was.

But there were losses along the way. DeForest Buckner’s replacement, Javon Kinlaw, has been out most of the season. The line had to get creative to find a way to create interior pressure, and it was mostly founded on Armstead.

On offense, Mike McGlinchey was lost for the season with a quad injury. The 32-year-old Tom Compton stepped in. Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne went out one door, and in came Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings.

There have been meaningful tweaks in how the 49ers run their bread-and-butter outside zone plays, in the use of blitzes and disguised coverages. But the main difference in this team is the use Deebo Samuel as an all-purpose weapons.

The goal of the 49ers’ run game? “Deliver blows

If you want a fuller dive into the inspirational brutality of Deebo Samuel, you can find that here. What everyone realizes is that there is no 49ers offense without him.

This was a team hanging onto a life raft before Samuel started to reel them in with his tour de force, first real implementation as a running back against the Rams in Week 10. San Francisco recovered its season in that game with a 31-10 win.

Him embracing that role has made this team what it was. Elijah Mitchell has been excellent, but he’s lacked the same breakthrough run ability as Raheem Mostert had in 2019. That’s not a concern because Samuel has shepherded that load, leading the NFL with seven rushing touchdowns from more than 10 yards away from the end zone.

You don’t get players like him. Ask Mike McDaniel.

“He’s not a receiver,” McDaniel said Thursday. “He’s a football player at the receiver position who also can play running back and we treat him as such. And he he would have it no other way.”

Samuel’s thick frame and athleticism means he’s built for both roles. But his aggressive mentality and football intelligence is what makes using him in myriad ways viable.

He’s said multiple times this season — and again Friday — that he doesn’t watch tape of other receivers because there is no one like him. When you’re a unicorn, you don’t try and imitate a horse.

Samuel also said that he didn’t view the task of being used as a running back like a burden.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a sacrifice,” Samuel said. “Part of being a pro is coming in and doing what the coaches ask you to do, but I wouldn’t say I’m taking punishment. I think I’m out there delivering the blows.”

That’s an understatement.

See: Exhibit A

And Exhibit B, against a delusional Jalen Ramsey:

Play action used to be a major component bouncing off that run game, but as with all steps of evolution, you lose some things. Humans lost our tails, and the 49ers stopped asking Jimmy Garoppolo to turn his back away from the play.

This season, the 49ers have used play action just 27.4 percent of the time. They used play action 33.3 percent of the time in 2019, and were far more effective with it. Garoppolo has four touchdowns and three interceptions this season on play action compared to 11 touchdowns and five interception on play action in 2019.

In 2019, San Francisco used shotgun snaps 44.6 percent of the time. In 2021, Shanahan has used shotgun 60 percent of the time.

And the offense has been more effective out of the shotgun. Per Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value over Average (DVOA) metric — a hell of a title that basically reveals how effective teams are compared to other teams — the 49ers have improved from the shotgun.

They rank third in shotgun DVOA (26.3 percent) and shotgun yards per play at 6.7 yards. Outside of the shotgun, they rank 14th in DVOA (0.8 percent), with 5.3 yards per play. That’s 1.1 more yards in shotgun than out of it.

In 2019, they ranked sixth in shotgun DVOA (18.7 percent) and fourth in shotgun yards per play at 6.5 yards. They were 11th in non-shotgun DVOA (0.3 percent) and averaged 5.8 yards per play out of the shotgun, a 0.7-yard difference.

That’s a lot of data to support the fact that this offense has made a shift to running far less play action and operating more out of the shotgun.

The benefit has been that Garoppolo is able to survey the defense much more often pre- and post snap, helping him be confident in those quick decisions he’s renowned for. It’s also promoted the use of Deebo Samuel in the shotgun, who benefits from it in a similar way to Garoppolo.

On so many of those wide zone runs from the shotgun, Samuel is waiting to attack a hole, and running those plays from the shotgun both keeps the expectation of a pass in play, and provides an extra blocker and extra time for Samuel to make his decision on which lane to attack.

It was highlighted best against Dallas.

This 49ers’ run game isn’t as effective as it was in 2019 with Raheem Mostert down the stretch, but since transitioning Samuel to a full-time part-time ball carrier in Week 10, the offense has rushed for at least 135 yards six times, and crossed the 100-yard threshold all but twice, one of which — against Seattle — was without Samuel.

It’s a team that might run the ball on you 40 times a game if it can, and beat you down in the process.

And even more menacingly, it’s given them a home run shot out of the backfield. It’s a huge part of why they have been a top-five team at converting in the red zone (63.79 percent), after being subpar in 2019 (55.56 percent TD conversion rate).

For a quarterback who can make some questionable decisions, that’s turned the 49ers into a very dangerous team.

A gap-plugging, quarterback-stifling front, and calm on the backend

For most of the first half of this season, the 49ers were in the midst of an identity crisis. Javon Kinlaw was trying to power through an impossible to power through knee injury and looked a shell of himself. And as predictable as it was unfortunate, Dee Ford’s back woes caught up with him again.

Two players who were at one point expected to be focal points of the defensive line were gone.

What changed was Arik Armstead sliding inside in Week 8 against the Chicago Bears.

“He has had a dominant year, a career year inside, and he’s been consistent all year,” said defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. “That’s why our run defense has been better because of Arik and his play. Arik continued to get better and better inside as the year went on. And D.J. has been as consistent as ever this year.”

It was evident from the start of training camp that the defensive line would be deep, which is why the lack of early production was so baffling.

What changed was Armstead moving inside, along with Arden Key as the dominant interior pass rush presence. Key has traditionally been used as an edge, and said he was misused by the Raiders.

On Kris Kocurek’s defensive line, he’s thrived inside, utilizing his length and flexibility to his advantage against squatty interior offensive linemen to the tune of 6.5 sacks.

Over the second half of the regular season, Key was creating pressure at a legitimately upper echelon level. He finished with the 15th and 9th-highest pressure rates on normal sets and true pass sets, respectively. Both ranked higher than the Rams’ Von Miller (19th and 10th, respectively).

Since Week 8, those numbers are even more absurd. Only Micah Parsons had a higher pressure per opportunity rate than Key’s (18.53 percent) out of 195 qualified players. Key was fifth in that category (26.32 percent) on true pass sets.

His win rates (i.e. beating his man) were in the top quarter of the league, but not in that upper echelon, which suggested the obvious; Key was, in part, succeeding because of the pressure coming along the rest of the line, in part due to some clever stunt usage by Kocurek.

Samson Ebukam also came on strong down the stretch, finishing with 4.5 sacks after a very shaky first half of the season. He’s still a very raw edge rusher, but he’s powerful and closes the pocket well.

What the 49ers have is a defensive line without a real weakness, and with the requisite depth to rotate.

“It helps a lot. And I think they’ve gotten a lot better with with the more reps they’ve gotten and then when we added Charles [Omenihu], that was a good addition,” said Nick Bosa. “And then Arden [Key]’s been on rush team for a while now, so he’s made a lot of big plays. But yeah, whenever whenever you have a group that could go in and and bring something even better than the Alpha group, like Kevin [Givens] could do certain things that week, the Alpha group can do and then [Kentavius] Street could come in there and bring his abilities. I mean each each guy brings an elite ability with them onto the field and when you have that, it’s not a drop off.”

Bosa’s not blustering.

(Here’s a quick recap of what he does, not that it’s necessary:)

He’s the lynchpin, but Armstead has been outstanding inside. He finished the season with top-20 pass rush win rates — 14.5 percent on all opportunities, and 22.5 percent on true pass sets — among 147 interior defensive linemen, so often setting up opportunities for his teammates.

Armstead also managed to finish third in run stop win rate amongst interior defensive linemen at 43 percent. The leader? D.J. Jones, with an absurd 48 percent run stop win rate.

And while he doesn’t get a ton of true pass rush opportunities, Jones has made the most of them. He led all 49ers interior defensive linemen with a 17.6 percent pressure rate on true pass sets, which ranked 21st among interior defensive linemen.

When Bosa mentioned Street, it wasn’t just an offhand, charity mention.

Street was uber efficient on the interior with his limited opportunities. He finished 19th in pass rush win rate, 21st in pressure per opportunity, 23rd in true pass rush win rate and 29th in pressure per opportunity on true pass sets en route to three sacks this year.

The same goes for Omenihu, who might be the most Moneyball addition on the roster. San Francisco got him for a sixth round pick and will have him for cheap next year, too. He’s quietly been one of the league’s most efficient pass rushers.

Out of 205 qualified players, Omenihu finished with unreasonably good pass rush metrics:

  • Win rate: 19.35 percent (15th out of 205)
  • Pressure/opportunity: 13.44 percent (27th out of 205)
  • Win rate, true pass sets: 25 percent (23rd out of 205)
  • Pressure/opportunity, true pass sets: 19.05 percent (31st out of 205)

Oh, and so far in the playoffs, Omenihu has the eighth-highest win rate (25.81 percent) and sixth-highest pressure per opportunity rate (25.81 percent) out of 99 qualified players.

As for the other guy Bosa mentioned, Kevin Givens? He’s a ruthless gap-plugger whose amended Jones’ presence in the run game, and caused occasional pressures on the few pass rush opportunities he games. He has some of the more violent hands you’ll see.

Jordan Willis is the last name on the list, and while he hasn’t been a stellar pass rusher for most of this season, he’s cerebral, relentless, and his special teams effort is the reason the 49ers are at this point.

This is a quick symphony of the line at its best.

 

On top of the obviousness of the defensive line play, the linebacker corps, which was hobbled for stretches, finally has Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair all healthy. Warner is coming off his best game of the season, which featured a punch out on Marcedes Lewis which might have saved the 49ers’ season.

Greenlaw and Al-Shaair play like their hair is on fire, and have as much range and speed as any linebackers in the league. Their coverage is not at Warner’s absurd standard, but it’s not replacement-level, either.

And then there’s the backend. During the Josh Norman doldrums, this was the ire of the defense, with an overabundance of defensive pass interference calls and poor coverage on top of it.

But we’ve now reached a point where the only real weak point of this defense is probably slot corner K’Waun Williams. He’s found himself flat footed, or just outright beaten far more often than in past seasons, especially on slot fades. But his knowledge of the scheme and value as a blitzer, run stopper and potential turnover causer mean he’s still a solid nickel.

Jimmie Ward is used as an all-purpose tool, lining up in the slot against tight ends and slot receivers, sometimes taking on one-on-one matchups on the outside, and playing center fielder and eraser as well as anyone.

Jaquiski Tartt has, as usual, gone under the radar, but is an enormous part of the defense’s success. He is a top-tier run-defending safety whose intelligence and time in the scheme have him and Ward operating at a borderline telepathic level in coverage handoffs. He also made a season-saving tackle on that 75-yard Aaron Jones catch last week.

And then you’ve got Emmanuel Moseley, who has always been a fairly reliable corner, settling down one of the outside spots. On the other side is Ambry Thomas, who has quickly built himself into anything but a slouch. He was woeful early on, but that’s the nature of the game. Cornerback is a brutal position where if you lose, you can lose big.

Pro Football Focus grades aren’t the end-all, be-all of assessing play, but they provide some semi-objective proof of what we all witness. And those show clear improvement by Thomas as of late.

All that is awfully important given what the 49ers face this weekend.

Could Stafford, Kupp, overcome this

At a certain point, this all becomes a question of how often Matthew Stafford can conjure up some dark arts-level throws to Cooper Kupp (and to a lesser extent, Odell Beckham Jr. and Van Jefferson).

Stafford will do that, and has been doing that in the playoffs.

He did the same thing against the 49ers a few times. Against great coverage, he found Kupp down the sideline, then threaded the needle for a touchdown that split coverage in the end zone.

This may all just come down to whether the 49ers can rattle Stafford like they did with Dak Prescott, and to a much more notable extent, Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers was coming off a near-flawless season in which he diced up just about every coverage that was thrown his way. But DeMeco Ryans called a variety of coverages and disguises. Even the half second it takes for an elite quarterback to have their expectations shifted and have to re-diagnose a coverage post-snap is a massive win for the defense.

When you couple confusion with a consistent pass rush, that’s how you get a quarterback to make mistakes. If the 49ers are able to do that and remain steadfast and effective in their run game and in converting third downs, they could smother the Rams.

That’s unlikely, given the stakes involved and the fact that these two teams know each other intimately. But for the Rams, this really all could just come down to Stafford needing to be great. And while he shows moments of outstanding greatness, he’s had a handful of mind-boggling interceptions against the 49ers this season, and there’s no way of knowing if that will continue.

 

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