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Patience: Tempering Reactions and Interpreting Observations

Aug 3, 2015 at 9:01 AM5

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The offensive line is getting destroyed. The corners are getting burned. All Jimmy T EVER says is "Tempo!" There are several urgent concerns springing up from the 49ers beat, and it is clear that those concerns are foremost in the minds of dedicated 49ers fans. It is clear that the defensive line has been asserting itself against the offensive line and that the pass rushers appear to be dominating 1 on 1 drills. It is equally clear from multiple impressive video clips that the defensive backs are being posterized, without mercy, by the receivers in 1 on 1 coverage drills. The defense wins, the offense struggles, and certain columnists have all the evidence they need to start exposing the soft underbelly of the team.

To make a clear, universal statement: the first week of camp always favors defense. Defensive players are taught rules to follow, then are essentially told to use those rules to find the spot from which they can go ahead and play instinctive football. Offensive players memorize a more expansive and more detailed set of plays, which are filled with adjustments and switched responsibilities that address every conceivable alignment and adjustment by the defense. These adjustments must be made and communicated before the snap, and often are nullified or modified immediately after the snap. Essentially, Offense thinks and defense reacts. Speeding up the thinking process takes more time than speeding up one's instinctive reaction time.

The first week of practice lends an even greater advantage to defenders because the first three days of practice are without pads. Without pads, physical contact is intentionally decreased to some degree (though it is still certainly present). This favors the defense in the trenches, as a defensive play call tells each defender where to go, but an offensive play call tells each blocker where and how to impede and manipulate the path of the defender that they are responsible for. Defenders can simply make the case that they are not initiating contact, so much as reaching their assignment. Offensive players cannot make a similar assertion, as any physical contact they make is with the intention of disrupting and controlling a defensive player.

This is how camp goes. Every 1 on 1 drill ever conceived clearly favors one side of the ball. Pass protectors never block a pass rusher while completely isolated, as they do in 1 on 1 drills. Even the lonely left tackle has a left guard to his right, restricting the free area an edge rusher can exploit on that side, allowing the left tackle to favor the left edge while kicking back into their pass set. Guards and centers are flanked on both sides, often exchanging responsibilities with an adjacent lineman once their assigned rusher moves beyond their lateral reach. Simply, 1 on 1 pass rushing drills are designed to favor the defense, while allowing pass protectors to see any flaws in their technique laid bare to address and improve. Defense should realistically win these drills every time.

If one factors in the obvious fact that the 49ers are still practicing without pads, it becomes obvious that the pass rushing drills tilt even more heavily toward the defense. Offensive linemen are not able to latch onto the breastplate of shoulder pads (it's not holding if your hands are inside) when those pads are back in the locker room. New additions (such as Erik Pears) are still learning what intensity of contact is acceptable on "non-contact practices." Trent Brown, in his first NFL training camp, should be expected to struggle while finding an appropriate level of physicality to exercise during a "no contact" practice. Physically impressive defenders such as Aldon Smith, Eli Harold, and Lawrence Okoye have a significant advantage here.

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It does not surprise me at all that Pears was put on his backside by a bull rush during these drills. A veteran who is as well traveled as Pears has likely seen a great variation in the physical intensity that is accepted during the non-padded practices that open training camp. Generally speaking, non-padded pass rushing drills are seen as an opportunity to refine technique—specifically hand fighting and counter moves. A bull rush under these circumstances is a total copout. Yes, Bills fans were happy to see Pears leave, but fan bases tend to have short memories. In 2011, Pears was a strength of their line. In 2012, his injury was considered a major blow to their team. In 2013 and 2014, he struggled with Doug Marrone's man blocking scheme. Through all four years, he was consistently good at pass protection.

1 on 1 coverage drills are a lot of fun for fans and players alike. WRs are able to impress, displaying their speed, agility, and acceleration in ways that lead observers to daydream about record-breaking stat lines and limitless mountains of fantasy points. Sadly, those dreams are just as unsubstantial as any other fantastic images conjured up by your wandering subconscious mind. The drill makes the unreasonable assumption that the defensive backs are always in man coverage with no over the top safety help. Essentially, each defensive back entering the drill is responsible for their receiver and any route they run short, deep, in, or out.

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The clear disadvantage presented by this setup places the defensive back in a position to lose, a position that is exacerbated by the clear fact that the receiver and quarterback know that the defensive back is in man coverage. They do not have to guess at coverage or adjust the route after the snap. Once team drills and preseason games commence, the mirage vanishes, and the advantage shifts back to the defense, who are limited only by their restriction against striking receivers who are in the process of making a catch (a restriction that seems likely to carry over to actual NFL games in the not-to-distant future).

I like Jim Tomsula. I think he's a great guy, and I really like his low-ego, common sense approach to running a team. It does sound a bit worrisome, however, that he appears to have a one-word vocabulary during practices, according to most reports. Screaming "Tempo!" repeatedly seems a bit manic, and could certainly seem like overkill, considering that the team was subjected to the same one-word, high-energy badgering during OTAs. Tomsula's explanation of the offensive and defensive benefits that are derived from practicing at such a high tempo help reinforce the importance of focusing on tempo. The reports from the second practice that the team frequently failed to break the huddle within Tomsula's target time frame helps explain his continued focus upon practice tempo.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

It seems reasonable that Tomsula is very deliberately placing foremost in the players' minds that this team will be expected to think and operate quickly at all times. It seems equally reasonable to assume that sustained success with practice tempo will allow Tomsula to find a new aspect of practice to emphasize in the near future. It should be encouraging to any fans who are concerned about the ability of a "nice guy coach" to run a team that Tomsula chewed out Patrick Miller and sent him off the practice field for getting into the huddle with the incorrect personnel group. Clearly, the "nice guy coach" has at least one performance standard that must be met all of the time, if he is to remain a nice guy.

Training camp is exciting. With real football players practicing real football, real questions about the shaping of a new and uncertain roster can begin to be answered. Tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses of new offensive and defensive schemes can be guessed at, and on-field observations can be used to support or invalidate arguments that have been presented throughout the offseason. Patience is still key.

When the preseason games begin, it will likely become clear that the pass rush is not quite as dominant as it appears to be in non-padded 1 on 1 drills, and that the pass protection is not nearly as inept. Wide receivers are unlikely to score 4+ touchdowns per game, and defensive backs won't be beat routinely without significant adjustments to defensive scheme. The head coach is unlikely to be so limited in the apparent scope of his focus on the team's performance. In short, the start to this training camp has been remarkably unremarkable so far, and this team will not make much of its identity known until padded practices and preseason games are the norm.
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.


  • Steve G.
    I love these Football 101 pieces. Thanks for taking the time and the effort to do these. A lot of fans have been high on Trent Brown and down on Pears. I can't wait to see how each of them perform in preseason.
    Aug 4, 2015 at 9:19 AM
  • Ed
    mbniner - completely agree - the OL must perform! I'm doubtful that it will be where it needs to be by week 1, but hopefully whatever unit they eventually play can stay healthy and improve as the season continues. This I think is the realistic best case scenario. Pears at RT has be something of a concern given his performance in Buffalo the last two seasons.
    Aug 4, 2015 at 2:46 AM
  • mbniner
    On top of all you said, the Niners are in the process of putting together a new OL. The OL requires a lot of reps to understand what they are doing as a unit. Flopping positions early on is going to cause a lot of growing pains, especially for a rookie like Brown. I suspect that by the end of the week, the line will be close to being set and the stabilization period will be in full swing. There is a lot of young talent to try to fill the absence of Davis, Iupati and, for a while, Kilgore. It will take a big effort, and some luck, to get them ready by the first game. This, to me, is the key to our season. The OL MUST perform.
    Aug 3, 2015 at 8:38 PM
  • Dave
    Would you say that White performing well during minicamps, OTAs and training camp isn't necessarily an indication that he could be good? Is preseason a more important factor?
    Aug 3, 2015 at 5:55 PM
    Response: I would say that preseason is more important for him, since the coaches have never seen him perform in an NFL game. He had an injury-muddled career in college, and he has been a playmaker in practice, which means that we at least know that he can be very effective when he knows the DBs aren't allowed to hit him (even when the pads come on tomorow, DBs are likely to be instructed not to hit receivers who are in the process of making a catch). Marlon Moore, Dominic Zeigler, and Marcus Maxwell have all dominated 49ers OTAs and TC practices in the past. WHO? Exactly. White has proven the he can be a playmaker in non-contact football. In preseason games, he should have the opportunity to prove more.
  • JD
    Another fantastic article. Thanks. Even Matt Barrows was not sure what to make of some things. Was the offensive line that bad or was the defense that good? I'm glad you decided to break this down.
    Aug 3, 2015 at 2:30 PM

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