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49ers mailbag: What’s happened to the run defense? What halftime adjustments were made against Detroit? Can SF score 30 in Super Bowl?

Marc Adams
Jan 31, 2024 at 11:16 AM--

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What's happened to the San Francisco 49ers run defense? This once dominant facet of the 49ers' defense has struggled at times lately. What halftime adjustments were made in the NFC Championship Game? It was truly a tale of two halves. Can the San Francisco offense score 30 in the Super Bowl? It won't be as easy as you think.

These are some of the questions we received for the latest edition of the 49ers Webzone Mailbag. We appreciate all your questions and the way you support 49ers Webzone by reading our work. We do it for you, and it's an honor to do so.

Let's jump into the mailbag and see if we can answer your questions.

What happened to our run D? Last couple of games were atrocious! - Aris A.

I don't believe it's been just the past couple of weeks that the run defense has struggled. There were points during the regular season that I didn't like what I was seeing. Last week, I had Oscar Aparicio, formerly of the Better Rivals Podcast, on my show to discuss the NFC Championship Game. I asked him about the 49ers' run defense. He said, "If you look at yards against the Niners' defense, I think it's first in the NFL. And that's just because they get so many leads that teams can't run. They have to abandon the run.

"But if you look at per-play efficiency, they're near the bottom of the league and that's because they're actually not great at stopping the run on a per-play basis. It's just that they get ahead and teams have to abandon the run, and so they just don't run and don't rack up that many yards. So I think that the best way to get the Lions out of their run game is to get a lead, get a positive game script, shut down their passing game, and then eliminate the fact that they're going to need to run in meaningful ways by just having a really good offense."

This was what I had been seeing for a while, as well. The 49ers defense didn't face that many offenses who stuck with the running game. Even the Lions got away from the run in the second half, when they were dominating in the trenches in the first half. The Arizona Cardinals stuck with the run in week 15, and they rushed for 234 yards. If the Lions had stuck with the run, they may have rushed for 300 yards or more (although I don't think the 49ers would have allowed that to happen).

Coming into the postseason, I felt like the 49ers run defense was worse in games where they had played a handful of games in a row, and were tired and missing tackles. The game against the Cincinnati Bengals was an example of that. But they came into the Divisional Round of the playoffs more rested than any team. So what is the problem?

Certainly, the wide-nine they run makes a defense susceptible to struggling to stop the run. Missing Clelin Ferrell doesn't help either. Ferrell is excellent at setting the edge in the run game. I also think missing Talanoa Hufanga might also play a part. For example, the long run by Aaron Jones in the Packers game was made possible by a missed tackle from Logan Ryan. Hufanga, even though he had his share of missed tackles this season, probably makes that play.

And let's not forget that the 49ers have placed more of an emphasis on pass rush than they have on stopping the run. Case in point, they signed Javon Hargrave and traded for Chase Young. Both players are known to be good pash rushers, but not as strong in the run game. In my opinion, they need to place a greater emphasis on stopping the run this offseason. I still believe they miss D.J. Jones, and probably hoped Kalia Davis would be that guy. It just hasn't happened yet.

Regarding the 49ers' win over the Lions: I'm not too certain of a lot of the technical elements of the game (particularly defense), so I can't really identify what changed from the first half (where it seems as though the Niners' D forgot to leave the locker room) and the 2nd half (almost a shutout). What do you think? What were the changes on defense that gave more resistance to the Lions' running game? I have to think the changes were beyond being told to "tackle better." - Tony M.

Yes, I don't think it was as simple as telling them to tackle better. Although they did tackle better in the second half. I had a fan reach out to me this week and say that Steve Wilks made no adjustments at halftime. He even showed different clips and made a decent argument. But there were adjustments made, though slight. The bottom line is that the players started making plays.

Mike Silver reported that he was told that Fred Warner addressed the team and said everyone needed to do their job. I heard someone else report that Nick Bosa said the same thing to the team—do your job. They did their jobs and won the game.

I asked John Chapman, of the 49ers Rush Podcast, what he saw on film, as far as second-half adjustments. Chapman said, "The main thing I've seen so far is turning the linebackers loose to attack downhill faster. The defensive line finally started to control the offensive line. And much more man coverage, as well."

I also reached out to Anthony Robertson, of 49ers Cutback, he had some thoughts, as well, based on the film he watched. "49ers struggles on defense were a combination of lack of execution and alignment issues in the front seven," Robertson said. "Give credit to Detroit, they took advantage and executed at a high level.

"The 49ers made subtle adjustments in the 2nd quarter, and at the half, made great adjustments. Steve Wilks got more aggressive, he ran some great disguises in coverage to throw off Goff. He started mixing in more man coverage and then showed man looks that were actually zone. Fire zone blitzes and dropping Chase Young also showed up in the 2nd half. Key players like Tashaun Gipson, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw played so well in the 2nd half."

So Wilks and the defense did make some adjustments, but they were more subtle. Those small changes, though, had big impacts.

I know the Chiefs' defense is good, but I'm convinced we can score 30 with this offense. The question is how does this dumpster fire of a defense not concede 31? -TheGreavance

Well, that is the big question. It's been a strange season for the Chiefs. Their defense has carried them for much of the season, and their offense hasn't been as dynamic as it's been in seasons past. So we might be tempted to think the 49ers should dominate them. But they still have Patrick Mahomes, and when you have the best QB on earth, you always have a chance.

The Chiefs defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, has been excellent this season. He's been a successful defensive coordinator for many years and has figured out how to stop some of the best offenses of all time, including the record-setting 2007 New England Patriots. With two weeks to prepare, Spagnuolo will have some things that Purdy and the 49ers offense may not be expecting. Scoring 30, in the Super Bowl, against Steve Spagnuolo, may not be as easy as some would anticipate.

First, can this SF defensive front get any pressure on Mahomes? We know holding penalties are off the table. Second, will our offensive line be able to protect on the interior and Chris Jones? Brock has been taking some hits. - KCarps

The defensive front has to put pressure on Mahomes. If they don't, the 49ers will struggle to win the game. The Kansas City offensive tackles have had issues this season, so Young and Nick Bosa have a chance to make their presence known in the Super Bowl. I think the 49ers defensive front will get to Mahomes some.

As far as blocking Chris Jones, we all know how that went in Super Bowl LIV. The 49ers offensive line handled Jones okay in the first three quarters, but in the fourth quarter, when they needed to score, Jones took over the game. If the 49ers can't keep Jones from wrecking things in the middle of the line, it will be a long day for the 49ers' offense. I believe the 49ers will figure out how to handle Jones this time.

Marc, who will we get back injury-wise in the secondary for the Super Bowl? GO NINERS! - John M.

The 49ers aren't missing anyone, other than Hufanga. He won't be back this season. We'll see what he looks like next season.

Ambry Thomas left the NFC Championship Game with an ankle injury. He's considered day-to-day, so he should return for the Super Bowl. Everyone else is healthy, including Darrell Luter, Jr. and Samuel Womack, who both missed most of the season.

Did Zay Flowers give Kyle ample evidence as to why to avoid relying on rookies in the playoffs? - Dan C.

Kyle Shanahan lacked trust in rookies long before the postseason began. Early in the season, he seemed to trust Ronnie Bell, but some ball security issues appear to have changed that. In 2021, Shanahan used Elijah Mitchell as his lead running back after Raheem Mostert was lost for the season. Mitchell didn't do anything to let his coach down, either. He had a great season running the ball, and more importantly, never once fumbled the ball.

Interestingly, Shanahan doesn't trust rookies that much, and yet he drafted a rookie kicker in Jake Moody. And he's continued to show he has faith in Moody. That's a little off-brand for Shanahan. He normally doesn't want to put too much on rookies.

When Ambry Thomas was injured in the NFCC, instead of naturally turning to Oliver, who has struggled this season, Wilks and his staff, turned to a multiple Superbowl-winning veteran safety, Logan Ryan, to play the nickel, who seemed to fill in admirably. This enabled Gibson, Brown and Ryan to all share the field at the same time. Based on the production that this group provided to close out the NFCC. Could the 9ers end up starting the trio in Vegas? - Jordan

My best guess is that they will go back to how things were before the Thomas injury, provided he's healthy. Now if Thomas starts struggling and giving up big pass plays, or committing back-breaking pass interference penalties, then maybe they will do something different. When you're facing Mahomes, I think you want your best cover guys out there. Thomas is a better cover guy than Logan Ryan and Isaiah Oliver.

Now, if they start having a lot of trouble with the Chiefs run game, then maybe they'll make a switch. But running the ball isn't Kansas City's strength. They're good at it, but you don't fear their run game like you do that of the Packers or Lions. And Mahomes will always be the biggest threat when you're facing the Chiefs.

How much do you trust the coaching staff (especially Wilks) to have us prepared from the start, with a game plan that has us not falling behind early? - Scott B.

Well, for most of the season, the 49ers have started off fast, which is why teams didn't rush for many yards against them. The 49ers were always leading.

But in the past two games, it hasn't gone that way. The 49ers have started slowly and had to play catch-up. This game will feature some great play-callers and schemers, in Shanahan, Spagnuolo and Andy Reid. I would expect the Chiefs to jump out in front, especially since Wilks' defense started slowly a lot this season. Wilks makes good halftime adjustments, but he often starts slow.

Unfortunately, a slow start against the Chiefs could spell disaster. They're not likely to make the same mistakes the Packers and Lions made.

Great win! Why does it seem to take so long for Shanahan and Wilks to make in-game adjustments when it's going so bad so quickly? - Chanly K.

I'm not sure it takes Shanahan too long to make adjustments, although he did say that at halftime on Sunday, he decided to stop worrying about the scheme and just get the ball into the hands of his best players. That worked.

Wilks, though, has been a little slow to adjust, at times. In some games, he's adjusted after the first couple of drives, but in others, it's been halftime. Again, you can't start slow against the Chiefs. The 49ers defense needs to play their best game of the season on February 11th.

What are your thoughts on Javon Hargrave during the latter part of the season & playoffs? Does it seem like he's not a factor?? - Jay B.

Hargrave was the big free agent signing in the offseason. He was great during the first half of the season but has tailed off as the season has worn on. When the 49ers signed him, we knew the run defense might suffer a little bit, but his pass-rush ability would more than make up for it. But recently, he hasn't even been that effective in getting after the quarterback. So I agree that Hargrave hasn't lived up to his billing in recent weeks. I don't know that I'd say he's a non-factor, but he needs to step up. He's one player who could have a monstrous impact on the Super Bowl.

Will we see more screen passes against Kansas City? - Phillip J.

That's a good question. The 49ers never run as many screen passes as I want them to. I just remember seeing Bill Walsh run a lot of screens to Wendall Tyler, Roger Craig, and Tom Rathman. Those were always hugely successful. So now that Shanahan has Christian McCaffrey, I think he should use more screens.

49ers fans should know, all too well, that screen passes are an effective way to slow down an aggressive pass rush. Teams have used them against the 49ers. The 49ers should use them more, as well.

Marc, it's time to come clean. When it was 24-7 at halftime, what did your written story say? Or did you have hope and was holding off on your game story until later? - Ed H.

I was not happy. I was prepared to write that the 49ers blew their best chance to win a Super Bowl since 1994. But thankfully, they turned it around and won the game.

Sometimes I'm calm and thoughtful during a 49ers game. And sometimes I'm more on the emotional side. Either way, I never abandon my team. I have a friend who is a Chiefs fan. He texted me when the 49ers tied the game and asked if I was still watching. He thought I might have bailed on the 49ers at halftime. But I assured him I was still watching. I watched the entire NFC Championship Game last season when the 49ers got blown out in Philadelphia. So if I stick with the team through a mess like that, I'll stick with them through anything.

I wonder if Brock has incentives in his contract. - Steve P.

It's a little complicated, but yes, Brock Purdy has the opportunity to potentially triple his base salary of $870,000. Per Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports, Purdy earned about $174,000 as a bonus for getting to the NFC Championship Game, and can earn another $164,000 for winning the Super Bowl. Jones said that, as he understands it, Purdy could earn between $700,000 to $1 million in performance-based pay. There are other incentives, including making the Pro Bowl, which Purdy did, that will allow him the chance to make about $1.5 million.

It's still peanuts compared to what NFL quarterbacks make. But Purdy's day will come.

The only Brock Purdy question remaining: Captain Comeback or the Comeback Kid? - Jeff

I like "Comeback Kid," considering Purdy is still so young (and looks even younger than he is). It's so impressive that Purdy, who was barely drafted, has had so much success. He has passed every test that's been given to him. Only two tests remain:

  1. Winning the Super Bowl
  2. Defending the Super Bowl

We'll see if he can pass the first test in less than two weeks. The other test will have to wait until next season. But regardless of what happens, 49ers fans should be proud. Purdy is the third youngest QB to start the Super Bowl. The two quarterbacks who were younger than Purdy were Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger. They turned out okay.

How can we get tickets without selling our soul?! Lol. - Annette B.

Well, it can be a challenge, but there is a way to get Super Bowl tickets without selling your soul. Here's the secret formula:

  • Take a block of Limberger cheese and put it in a large pot. It will make your house smell horrible but just do it.
  • Add part of a cat's whisker, a pinch of salt, a clove of garlic, and some fresh thyme.
  • Then you have to cut a small piece of a pair of Levi's jeans and place them in the pot. It has to be the Levi's brand. Don't substitute.
  • Now add a cup of Gold Bar Whiskey and a teaspoon of cayenne pepper.
  • Finally, you place a small portrait of Taylor Swift in the pot, make up some witch-doctor-sounding chants, and your tickets will appear.
  • Be sure not to tell anyone or it won't work. It's our little secret.

Is there going to be a Super Bowl party at the Adams household? - Sasha R.

I'm not too much fun to be around when the 49ers are playing, especially during postseason games. But I will say the last time I went to a Super Bowl party when the 49ers were playing was January 1995. That one went my way, but even then, I only stayed a few minutes and then went home. I think the score was 14-7 when I left. By the time it was over, it was 49-26.

That's all we have for this week. We'll be back next week with another championship version of the 49ers Webzone Mailbag.
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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