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Steve Young on 49ers defense: ‘The pass rush is not nearly what it was a couple of years ago’

Marc Adams
Sep 30, 2021 at 11:25 AM--

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The San Francisco 49ers defense has not started off the new season as strongly as many believed it would. Comparisons between this 2021 defense and the 2019 defense were made in the offseason, training camp and preseason. Although few believed this defense could be as dominant as the 2019 defense was, most still believed this defense would compare well, and could harass opposing quarterbacks the way the 2019 squad did.

But so far, the 2021 49ers defense has not lived up to its billing. The defense has been up and down. Dominant one drive...dormant the next. It has given up some big pass plays, and been gashed in the run game, at times. But it also has two goal-line stands in the last two games. Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.

On Wednesday, former 49ers quarterback Steve Young joined Tolbert, Krueger and Brooks on KNBR. Speaking on the team, as a whole, Young said, "This team is not what it was two years ago, right now. We gotta figure out how to get there. Defensively, the pass rush is not nearly what it was a couple of years ago."

The numbers back up what Young is saying so far. In 2019, the defensive front put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. That season's defense averaged three sacks per game (compared to the 2021 team, which is averaging two sacks per game). Though it isn't a huge drop-off in the way of sacks (compared to 2019), what can't be seen on a stats sheet is that the 2019 pass rush was relentless. Even when it wasn't getting to the quarterback, it was still pressuring him. The current squad isn't pressuring the quarterback at the same rate.

Young said one big difference is that, two years ago, the 49ers had a "stiff inside" of the defensive line and an "explosive outside." He said they are now getting handled on one side, and the interior is not as strong. As you know, the team traded away DeForest Buckner after the 2019 season. It replaced him with Javon Kinlaw, who is still learning to be an NFL player and has battled some injuries.

When you compare the statistics of the team's defense for the past three seasons (see below), the current team even has trouble measuring up to the 2020 team that was ravaged by injuries. But that team had Jason Verrett at cornerback. This team does not. The loss of Verrett will be felt all season, as the current defense does not have a number one corner who can lock up the other team's top wide receiver.

The 2021 defense is allowing more points so far than either of the previous two defenses. It is allowing (less than one point) more than last season, but five points more than 2019. You'll recall the 49ers lost to the Packers by only two points Sunday night. So, in this case, the five points would have made a large difference. And differences like this, whether large or small, add up in the course of a season. One loss can quickly become four, and cost you a shot at the postseason.

Additionally, the 2021 defense is allowing almost 81 yards more per game than the 2019 defense. This is especially seen in the passing yards allowed, where this year's team is allowing almost 80 yards more through the air than in 2019. Not to beat a dead horse, but...

One of the bigger issues, so far, is that both the 2019 and 2020 teams averaged more than one takeaway per game. The 2021 defense has one takeaway through three games. Again, when you lose by two (courtesy of a last-second field goal), one takeaway could have made the difference.

There was really no reason to think this year's defense would compare to the 2019 defense, one of the best in team history. But one would think the 49ers' 2021 defense would be better than the 2020 defense. After all, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford have returned. But the 49ers cornerbacks are not as good as the corners from 2020. Have I mentioned that losing Verrett really hurts?

Add to the mix a rookie defensive coordinator. DeMeco Ryans is the new man in charge, replacing Robert Saleh. Ryans is still learning. It took Saleh a season or two to grow into the coordinator that he became. It will (no doubt) take Ryans a bit, as well.

Speaking of defensive play-calling, Young did not like how the defense approached the last two plays on Sunday night, with only 37 seconds left. He felt the first play was just an amazing throw by Aaron Rodgers. Fred Warner barely missed knocking it down. It was a perfect throw by Rodgers. The second play, though, bothered Young.

"The defense, especially on the second play, when you know you cannot let him into field-goal range, you can't have it," said Young. "So the idea that you're just gonna play off…he's certainly not throwing for the end zone. You don't need to guard the goal line. You gotta guard for the next seven to eight yards because that's the difference in this ballgame."

It doesn't get any easier. Next up is Russell Wilson. Maybe this will be the week the 2021 defense comes to life.

Team Defense Numbers for the past three seasons

Points allowed/game: 19.4
Touchdowns surrender/game: 2.3
Third down efficiency: 33.3%
Total yards surrendered per game: 304.8
Passing yards allowed/game: 169.2
Passing yards allowed/attempt: 5.9
Rushing yards allowed/game: 112.6
Rushing yards allowed/rush: 4.5
Sacks/game: 3
Takeaways/game: 1.5
Penalty yards/game: 59.8

Points allowed/game: 24.4
Touchdowns surrender/game: 2.6
Third down efficiency: 35.50
Total yards surrendered per game: 326.8
Passing yards allowed/game: 207.9
Passing yards allowed/attempt: 6.6
Rushing yards allowed/game: 106.4
Rushing yards allowed/rush: 4.0
Sacks/game: 1.9
Takeaways/game: 1.25
Penalty yards/game: 44.3

Points allowed/game: 24.7
Touchdowns surrender/game: 2.7
Third down efficiency: 36.84
Total yards surrendered per game: 385.3
Passing yards allowed/game: 248.0
Passing yards allowed/attempt: 6.9
Rushing yards allowed/game: 122.3
Rushing yards allowed/rush: 4.7
Sacks/game: 2.0
Takeaways/game: 0.33
Penalty yards/game: 63
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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