Photo courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers

Photo courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers

Better Rivals: DeMeco Ryans and the 49ers defense is doing a phenomenal job

Marc Adams
Oct 15, 2021 at 10:39 AM--

If defense still wins championships, fans of the San Francisco 49ers must have been teeming with anxiety over the thought of having to rely on the defense, as they have been able to, in recent years. It has stressed me out. But you can rest easy, San Francisco fans, the tide may be turning.

Through the first four games of the season, the 49ers defense looked a little Jekyll and Hyde. There were moments in each of those games where the defense looked like the dominant unit we have grown accustomed to seeing. But there were also moments in which they looked lost (see Rodgers, Aaron). The game against Green Bay was the low point, letting the Packers kick a game-winning field goal, even though they had no timeouts and only 37 seconds left.

If the first four games were filled with breakdowns, the fifth game, this one in Arizona against the league's top-ranked offense, was the breakthrough. With their backs against the wall, the 49ers defense looked like it's old self.

Oscar Aparicio and David Neumann are the hosts of the "Better Rivals Podcast." Each week, they break down the previous game, and preview the next game. It's a scheme-heavy podcast, focused on giving listeners depth and insight into how plays are designed and executed, rather than just a shallow summary you might get from morons like me. It's a smart podcast, and I always learn something when I listen.

This week, Aparicio and Neumann broke down the 49ers loss to the Cardinals. They spent time discussing Trey Lance's first NFL start, but they also spent some time talking defense. And this was a good game to break down defensively, as the 49ers did some good things, schematically, to hold the league's best offense to only 17 points.

I personally entered this game, from my couch, with fear and trepidation. This defense had not looked like they had the previous two seasons, had a rookie defensive coordinator, and struggled in the two games leading up to this one. So how did they fare so well against the Cardinals?

"They had a really good plan against Kyler Murray to try to keep contain on him, and it was really interesting to see Dee Ford almost lined up out in the slot and come in, just so he could keep contain, and the ends are rushing upfield, they're not rushing to the quarterback," Aparicio explained. "This is definitely something they coached them to do, because they knew Kyler's tendencies. I mean, they knew he likes to sink back in the pocket, kind of whip around. And they did it to great effect.

"They lost contain once. And it cost them at the end of the game. But overall, they had a good, solid plan, and holding the Cardinals to 17 points, you think to yourself, you can win that game, because no one has held them under 30 coming into this game. And the Niners hold them to 17. DeMeco Ryans and this defense, despite the patchy secondary, is doing a phenomenal job."

I certainly didn't expect them to hold Murray's Cardinals to only 17 points. And had it not been for some questionable offensive play calls, and some poor execution from multiple offensive players, the 49ers would have won this game. The defense was fantastic, and gave the team a chance to win it.

Neumann added, "I think what they did, in terms of the rush plan there, was really good. I mean, Kyler, we talked about this, in regard to Lance a little bit, right, in young quarterbacks needing to learn to step up through the pocket rather than looking to bail backwards out of the pocket. And Kyler still does that. I think he's always done that, and look, he's more athletic than most guys and is probably going to be able to get away with that more than nearly any other quarterback is going to be able to get away with it.

"But it is something they were very aware of in this game and yea, I think the way they were rushing upfield and being more concerned with keeping him in the pocket, and knowing that when he escapes, he's gonna try to do it backwards out of the pocket, and being ready to meet him there, instead of just thinking he's going to be a sitting target right in the middle of the pocket, and going and looking like an idiot because you whiff and you can't tackle the guy. So they did a great job from that respect."

The weakness of the 49ers defense this season has been the secondary. That group was paper thin to begin with, but has since lost its best cornerback, Jason Verrett. Ryans has been forced to used the likes of Dre Kirkpatrick and Josh Norman. And yet, the secondary has been decent this year.

"From a coverage standpoint, they did, I mean, really exactly what I thought they were going to do when we talked about it in the preview, which is, they really went out of their way to limit explosive plays," continued Neumann. "I think they sat in a lot of quarters, and it was a lot of soft shells, and they were giving a lot of cushion underneath and I think it largely worked. When you look at the explosive plays, they (Arizona) only managed three, in the passing game. And two of them were just absurd plays, like the Rondale Moore catch on the sidelines. There's no defense for that."

The Better Rivals duo referenced how Nick Bosa was doing his usual thing in Arizona, but they pointed out Arik Armstead specifically. Said Aparicio, "Arik Armstead, man, he had himself a game. And especially when the Cardinals were backed up into their own end zone, he was single-handedly blowing everything up, from setting the edge anytime they needed to go outside to that side, or getting held in the end zone...But he was just destroying people left and right.

"Arik Armstead is someone we probably haven't talked enough about for the last few weeks, but he is playing really, really well. The question, when the Niners resigned him, was 'was he going to be able to play up to his contract,' and I think so far, he is playing up to his contract, and he's playing like one of top edge players in the league. And game in and game out, he is just destroying people and it really helped the Niners stay in this game, especially late when he started to take over."

Neumann talked about how Armstead is so valuable when you're able to kick him inside and have Ford and Bosa on the edge, and how that is the best version of this pass rush. The 49ers like to use Armstead on the outside on base downs, but then move him inside on heavy passing downs. Said Neumann, "I think it just makes such a big difference having that presence there and, even if it's just keeping bodies off of Bosa and Ford on the edge, it's a huge win for them."

There may be a lot of questions on offense right now, but the defense looks like it has turned the corner. Ryans drew up an excellent game plan against the Cardinals, and the players executed it very well. This unit appears to be back. That's great news for the 49ers...and anxious fans like me.
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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