49ers: How Ronald Blair can Best be Utilized by DC Robert Saleh

Niners Live continues the trend of taking inventory of the less talked about talent on the 49ers roster. This edition highlights the skill set, versatility and role of Ronald Blair.


What we already know

Let’s get this out of the way now. The 49ers finishing last in multiple defensive categories (total, rushing and scoring) in 2016 didn’t give the organization, city or fans much to be hopeful about and simply put, it was hard to smile last season. But there were, and are, a few reasons to grin just a little bit now knowing change is coming on the back end of that depressing season. After a great first draft by John Lynch adding talented rookie front seven playmakers (Solomon Thomas and Rueben Foster) to the defense, key offseason additions, and a switch to the 4-3 under with the arrival of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, there is plenty to look forward to and even be excited about.

A number of players that were said to be underachievers or as some considered, “busts”, finally get a fair shot to become key contributors on this hungry, up and coming, soon to be dominant 49ers defense. One of those players poised for a breakout season and to earn the respect he deserves, or as it’s been mostly recently put, make people put some respect on his name, is Ronald Blair.

Whether it was a 4-3 defensive end being tasked with playing more of a coverage role at outside linebacker or a 3-technique (weak side outside shoulder of the guard in the 4-3 under) defensive tackle playing deep in the middle as a 0/1 technique (head up on the center of on either shoulder) nose tackle, bottom line, those are tall tasks and the handicap of playing out of position was present. Add multiple injuries to that mix of players out of position and you get exactly what was seen last season, a bottom ranked defense. Okay, rant over.

Why Ronald Blair

A fifth round pick out of Appalachian State University in the 2016 draft, Blair was a four-year starter who predominantly played 3-4 defensive end and did so in dominating fashion. Or, as the younger generation says these days, he played his position like a “beast” and, as seen in the video below, I think it’s a fair assessment.

Blair has a nose for the ball and is consistently in the backfield. His skill set and rare combination of size, quickness, strength and excellent use of his hands make him a great fit to play strong side defensive end in the new 4-3 under scheme of Robert Saleh. His ability to get off the ball the way a track star comes out of their blocks (his first step) and get his head up to find the ball carrier, will aide him in setting the edge to force runs inside, essentially shutting down the run on his side of the field. He’s also effective at rushing the passer when squeezing the pocket from the inside or the outside.

Blair played all 16 games (311 snaps) in 2016 and has proven to be effective in run support and rushing the passer, as well. In the new 4-3 under scheme, he’ll most line up at defensive end, but his versatility will allow him to slide inside as a 3-technique defensive tackle on passing downs. Blair improved as the season progressed last year. While his numbers don’t jump off the charts (11 total tackles, six solo, three sacks), what does, is his motor, passion, effort, ability to disrupt, shed blocks, and his versatility. Seeing as how Solomon Thomas is about the only other defender on this roster capable of being effective on the edge and in the middle, Blair’s chances of making this roster are that much better.

The reasonable expectations

To be objective, the defensive line depth is deep, and Blair will have to continue to grow and be effective and productive, especially if he wants to make this roster. My guess is he’ll do just that with his proven ability to play multiple positions. His versatility bodes well for him and for the team. Something else plays in his favor. The 49ers look to use multiple personnel groupings, rotating players frequently along the defensive line to maximize talent, matchups, and ability, while minimizing fatigue and overly high snap counts for players.

According to defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina, “I’m a rotation guy, I’m allowed to rotate guys as much as I want, and I will do that. I told those guys. You give me four-to-five plays full-tilt, I’m going to rotate you, I believe in fresh bodies all the time. I don’t like to see guys play more than 1,000 snaps in a season.” (team website).

Blair is one of the more promising players that has potential to benefit from the emphasis on rotation and the change to the four-man front of the 4-3 under. The increased rotations, solid mixture of personnel groupings, and new scheme should mean a solid and capable 11 on the field every snap, regardless of down or situation. This front seven should be playing a game of “meet you at the quarterback” quite often this season.

To paint a better picture, go with me if you will, back to your childhood (or that of a young child) playing football at the park with a crew of neighborhood ballers you grew up with. You remember how everyone tried to outdo the other? Not to show each other up, but to hype each other up and bring the best out of each other. One person makes a big hit, so everyone else follows suit and makes an even bigger hit, better interception, or just better play. Yep, that’s that “dawg mentality”, and this roster has plenty of players that possess this rare trait.

Okay, let’s wrap this up. It’s been said that competition and doubt breeds greatness, and there’s plenty of both on this roster. The competition is self-explanatory. The doubt is in reference to this defense once again resembling a top tier defense. On a more personal level for Blair, the doubt that he makes this final roster is what fuels him most. It’s safe to say this defense is playing with a huge chip on its shoulder. That’s exactly how I see Blair and this defense. Now, I’m not one to sell dreams or give false hope, but do I live by the “I’d lie for you before I lie to you” theory. Meaning, I won’t lie to you and say this team is playoffs or Super Bowl bound this season. I will tell you this, though. This defense and team as a whole is in a great position to climb the NFC West ladder on its way back to contention. Go Niners!

Please join us again soon on Niners Live, the home of the fan and analyst.

As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.

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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comPro Football Focus49ers.comESPN.comNFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Kevin Mitchell Staff Writer at Niners Live. Co-Author, Editor Sequoia Sims.