Fearless Predictions: How the 49ers Can Have a Top 10 Defense in 2017

Niners Live continues it’s Fearless Predictions with: How the 49ers Can Have a Top 10 Defensive Ranking for the 2017 season.


Defense wins Championships. So with a historically bad defense, ranking 32nd in the NFL last season (via ESPN.com), the San Francisco 49ers 2-14 record was well earned. New Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh and his 4-3 Under Scheme were brought in to improve the production of the defense. This Fearless Prediction says that with changes to the scheme, added reinforcements via free agency, young players ascending, a strong draft class ala Fearless Predictions: The 49ers Draft “DE Solomon Thomas” and the returned health of former Pro Bowler and All-Pro (MLBNaVorro Bowman, the 49ers’ defense can produce a ranking of Top 10 worthy in the NFL for the 2017 season.

2016 Historically Bad:

After years of the 49ers defense dominating opposing offenses and ranking in the top 15 in defense from 2007 – 2014, the league seems to have learned how to dominate the defensive unit Posting stats in 2016 that were the worst in franchise history in rushing yards allowed (165.9 per game), total yards allowed (406.4 per game) and points allowed (480, that’s 30 per game!!!). Not to mention giving up 100 yards on the ground to a record seven consecutive rushers. These numbers were even worse than the 387.9 yards and 24.2 points per game they gave up in 2015 (NFL.com).

Improvements Abound:

New Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is bringing the 4-3 Under Defense with him to San Francisco after years of the team running the 3-4 Defense. While changing a defense usually takes a couple years to complete, this is a unique opportunity for the team to match its personnel with a defense that can bring out the talents of the unit. As we will see, one of the biggest problems the defense faced was the scheme it deployed.


The new coaching staff will be led by first-year defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Replacing the often overmatched Jim O’Neil formerly known as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. Saleh comes to the 49ers from the Jacksonville Jaguars after leaving the Seattle SeaHawks with Head Coach Gus Bradley. The Jags ranked 6th in total defense last season, after ranking 26th when he and Bradley arrived in 2014.

Along with Saleh comes new position coaches. Each brings an element to their respective positions that can accelerate the learning curve and heighten the talents of players under their tutelage.

New defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina comes from a Steve Spagnuolo defense that asked the team’s defensive linemen to “move around the line and generate pressure.

The scheme requires the linebackers to be responsible for the inside A and B gaps on either side of the guards. This meshes well with linebacker’s coach Johnny Holland after coming from a defense that “often rushed five” and “ask(ed) the linebackers to rush inside gaps.” Assistant defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks teams with lead defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley. Bullocks came from Jacksonville with Saleh, and while coaching the defense that will be deployed by the 49ers, he helped the Jaguars pass defense rank to rise to fifth in fewest total yards allowed.

Hafley was retained after the 2016 season in which the 49ers defense was ranked 19th in total passing defense, while amassing 10 total interceptions. How did that stack up against the rest of the National Football League? Well, at least 22 teams did it better.

Are your eyes wide open?

Run Defense:

To be an effective defense at stopping the run it takes all 11 guys, but it begins up front. In looking at the film from 2016, O’Neil’s defense was literally aligned to give up massive rushing yards.

When the team played its four Down Lineman Nickle or Dime packages, something the NFL averages 60 to 70 percent of the time just dating back to 2014 alone (via ESPN.com), O’Neil had his defensive linemen positioned with three defenders on one side of the center to the strong or Tight End side of the formation, and left a single defender on the opposite side to face a natural double team. Runners would simply cut back into the open field where the free blocker would engage the lone defender before moving to the next level of defense to clear out the Linebacker.

New Coach Robert Saleh will deploy a combination of one and two-gap responsibilities with a Five-Technique End and a One-Technique Nose Tackle manning two gap responsibilities, while a Three-Technique Under Tackle and a “Leo” (hybrid end/rush linebacker) play with one gap responsibility.

When talking about choosing Saleh and this defense for the team, Coach Shanahan touted the “Seattle, Atlanta, Jacksonville system” as “always an eight-man front and “very tough to run the ball against.” Describing Saleh “as smart as anyone (he’s) been around” and that Saleh “knows the true (system) inside and out.”

Playing the 5 Technique often requires facing a double team or at least a chip from the TE, and will usually face the right tackle (an offensive line’s power run blocker), Arik ArmsteadAhmad Books and Eli Harold should thrive in this role. Armstead, with elite size and the traits to become a “dominant run-stuffing defensive end”, in particular. Brooks, playing ROLB since joining the 49ers, has been asked to set the edge in the run game often. Harold will be returning to more of what he did in college that made him a top talent out of Virginia.

The same can be said for Quinton Dial, who on Niners Live told you he won’t go quietly. At Alabama, Dial played the 1 and 3 Technique Defense Tackle spots. Strength at the 1-technique can dramatically improve an entire run defense in this defense. Commanding a double team helps the 3 Technique and Leo get one-on-one situations. This also creates running lanes for the Weak and Middle linebackers to make plays in the backfield.

Pass Defense:

The Under Front is designed to make it very difficult to double-team the 3-Technique. This will make last season’s defensive lineman rookie tackle leader (73 Tackles, 16 games), Deforest Buckner, even better. He is poised to improve his sack, quarterback hurries and pass blocked numbers due to increased one-on-one situations. At 6’7”, when Buckner extends his arms for an inside push, even though he cannot make it all the way to the quarterback, the passing game will be affected by disrupting passing lanes and cutting off the quarterback’s field of vision. This pressure, along with the violent nature of this scheme’s secondary, should improve on the league’s 19th rank pass defense as aforementioned (NFL.com).

“You want violent people. You want to run and hit people and make that field smaller for everybody, especially for the receivers,” Shanahan said. “That starts with the safeties and corners being able to hit. It’s not just about hitting,” he said. “You want to be able to cover. You got to be smart.” The best example of the violence this scheme can produce can be found in the Seattle Seahawk’s secondary. With the talent currently slated to patrol the back end of the 49ers defense next season, we could see the evolution of the violence and production of the 4-3 Under.

Early in the 2016 season the defensive secondary saw a rash of injuries. This allowed for 4th round draft pick, Rashad Robinson, to find playing time. Taking advantage of his opportunity, Robinson forced his name into the early Rookie Defensive Player of the Year consideration from Pro Football Focus. After week five, Pro Football Focus reported that Robinson held opposing quarterbacks, when targeting him, to a passing rating of just “33.5—actually worse than if the QB just threw the ball into the dirt on those 13 targets.” His play continued to rise through the season as he gained experience. Aggressive, long and rangy, this is a player who takes pleasure in coming up to make the tackle in run support, giving him the potential to be a more physical and productive Richard Sherman.

Backing up the standout rookie Rashad Robinson will be Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid playing the Earl ThomasKam Chancellor Roles as recently discussed on Niners Live. General Manager John Lynch stated that Jimmy Ward will “get a long look at Free Safety this offseason” with “Eric Reid entrenched as the Strong Safety”, returning the pair to their more natural positions. Ward’s NFL Draft Profile credited him with having “quick hands to snatch interceptions” and the “speed to break on the ball,” and this is the reason most expect him to fill the centerfielder Earl Thomas role nicely.

Ask former 49ers’ and current Washington Redskins tight end Vernon Davis about the violence of this defense. Seattle Strong Safety Kam Chancellor changed Davis’ mindset towards football when he introduced himself to Davis during the first quarter of a December game in 2012. This is what Reid will be asked to do. Again, a return to his more natural position where he was credited as “Flash(ing) excellent closing speed, pummel(ing) receivers after the catch when coming downhill, and he can get into the backfield if smelling out the play after the snap.”

2017 Top 10 and Beyond:

By implementing a scheme that will utilize the talents of the defensive roster and clean up the vulnerabilities of the alignment, and by hiring the most well-versed coach available to teach the system, General Manager John Lynch and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan put this team in position to bring the talent floor to the ceiling and maximize production. The 2015 Giants defense also ranked 32nd in the league. Averaging 420.3 yards per game allowed, the Giants showed that the season the 49ers had could have been worse. After an 80.6 yards per game improvement and a number 10 ranking in 2016, the Giants also showed that a Top 10 prediction might not be fearless enough for us at Niners Live.

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.com, Pro Football Focus49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Edward Erving new Staff Writer at Niners Live. Co-Author, Editor Niners Live.