Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

49er Football Future: Defense

May 29, 2018 at 6:45 AM

What the offense giveth the defense taketh away. That homily may come to define the 49ers' 2018 season. After all, with kickers in place, returners now abundant, and several swift backups added this offseason, the special teams might excel. And I've already hinted, in part one, at how the offense could improve. But, ah, the defense, with its best linebacker in legal spin-cycles, its most proven cornerback compromised by an aching Achilles, and nary a consistent edge rusher in sight. What possible fun might even the most faithful fan derive by rooting for such a ramshackle outfit?

Well, to start, Americans traditionally like to root for the underdog, and, going into the season, the Niners' defensive squad lies somewhere beneath the underdog, with consensus expectations way down low. What if, instead of wretched, the defense improves to merely bad? What if it gets better as the season slips along? What if, in a couple of games this fall, it actually bails out the offense? Let fair-weather fans ballyhoo the offense. The faithful know that, in order for the 49ers to consistently compete for championships, the brass must assemble also a stout defense to complement Shanahan's offensive derring-do.

Yes, probably during some games we will bemoan the fact that the defense cannot get off the field, thus depriving the offense of much time to get onto it. Undoubtedly, we can expect some bouts of turgid play. But, lacking high draft choices with which to fortify every single roster spot, Lynchahan prefers to fling a fistful of darts at certain positions to see if some of them stick. Under their new shot-callers, the 49ers have heretofore not feared giving little-known players shots at playing time. Some, like Donate Johnson, don't work out. Some, like Adrian Colbert, do. Nor does the brain trust hesitate to move well-known players to different positions: Solomon Thomas from d-tackle to edge (not so good so far), Jimmy Ward all over the secondary (jury's still out), and Jed York from his office to nose tackle (just kidding). Of course, necessity determines some of these experiments, and a fully built future roster might someday render them moot. Nonetheless, we can have some serious football-nerd fun now rooting for lightly touted youngsters to break out or for the light to finally go on for onetime highly-touted players.

Some darted positions:

Safety/cornerback. I amalgamated these two secondary positions, because that's what the 49ers, this offseason, seem to have done. At one point it looked like they intended to start nine safeties. Some teams projected even the ostensible cornerbacks the 49ers added (Reed/McFadden) as safeties, while, in college, third-rounder Fred Warner played as much like a safety as like a traditional linebacker. Flexibility's fine, but one must also maintain a healthy wariness of tweeners who can never settle into a defined role. What do the 49ers want in a defensive back, anyway? Ones who can stop a contemporary offense, that is, an offense an awful lot like the one Kyle Shanahan might field.
Much has been made of the influence of college offenses on the pro game, but one could also draw an analogy with NBA offenses, and the kind of defenders needed to slow fast-break football. In other words, the 49ers will deploy wing defenders who can clog the passing lanes, flail their long arms, knock offensive players off course, and close fast. With such dashing players scrambling and learning on the fly, even mistakes might squeeze from us some grudging pleasure, confident that the coaches will eventually rectify blunders and fix miscues.

Interior defensive linemen. Curiously, rather than taking a flyer on an edge rusher like, say, Josh Sweat, even after the signings of Attaochu and Marsh, the 49ers instead added more traditional d-line defenders (Street, Taylor, Blaine), almost in direct disdain of what many considered the team's most pressing need. What's up with that? Frankly, the 49ers may need not just one, but two more edge rushers. But, let us not overly pout about what the Niners did not do, and instead assess what they did, and what it might tell us about their future defenses.

After the draft, John Lynch said that big men who can move are hard to find. True enough. Why, specifically, do the 49ers seem to value them so much? Because they regard such players as essential for thwarting state-of-the-art running games, that is, again, offenses that utilize the running game much as Kyle Shanahan's offense does, by exploiting the gaps, sideline to sideline, leaving by the wayside defenders without the quickness or energy to pursue. In short, the Niners want a rotation of fresh linemen strong enough to hold the point of attack and quick enough to nab backs before they bolt.

Speaking of quick, the college game has influenced the pro game in yet another way: passes often come out sooner, before edge rushers can get to the quarterback. This, correspondingly, increases the value of quick interior rushers. Inside their own division, the 49ers long had to contend with Seattle's Michael Bennett, since departed. But the dreaded duo of the Rams' Donald/Suh suddenly lurks, and even now haunts Jimmy G's dreams. I believe, were the Niners to move Solomon Thomas inside on passing downs, he and DeForest Buckner could likewise wreak dynamic havoc. And, as always, the long shadow of the salary cap shades roster construction, with the 49ers bent on some important upcoming decisions regarding their d-line.

Noticeably, I have yet to mention the linebacker position, mainly for one reason: Rueben Foster. Foster fits to a t the prototype of what the 49ers want in a linebacker: fast, aggressive, and rangy. That's why they traded up in the new regime's first draft to get him, despite injury and personality concerns. Since I originally wrote this Reuben's legal situation has cleared considerably, causing me to excise one whole paragraph, but the young man has not completely cleared his travails yet. The NFL will still review these drug/violence related matters as per its own policies. Presumably the 49ers, both the organization and his teammates, will provide the gifted young linebacker with the support necessary to help forestall him getting into such unfortunate situations in the first place. Suffice to say, should Mr. Foster return, should Warner pan out, and Malcolm Smith stay healthy, the 49ers' linebacker corps could develop into a strength of the team. These guys can move.

Nobody can say with much certainty beforehand what a season might bring, and the Niner bandwagon has already begun to sag with the weight of frontrunner expectations, but it appears the rock-bottom days have passed. Whether the defense coheres this year or not, the faithful face the prospect of watching a steadily improving team with exciting new athletes, seasoned with, yes, sporadic growing pains and occasional setbacks. Even if the defense totters, and gives up points by the barrel, we can nonetheless look forward to the red-and-gold offense retaking the field in all its Garoppolian splendor.

Admittedly, this time of year, optimism abounds for every NFL team, but this bunch may truly merit genuine hope. The football fates have delivered the 49ers franchise into a fan's sweet spot, where we need not fret about a continued drift toward doom, nor overly worry yet about the stress of fulfilling Super Bowl-or-bust expectations. Don't let the odds makers spoil it. Whatever the upcoming win/loss record, we should relish an enjoyably anticipatory offseason, a fun-to-watch regular season, and maybe even a playoff run.
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.

1 Comment

  • mbniner
    Barrows has a column on the addition of Chris Kiffen to the coaching staff to address the Niners most pressing need, a pass rush. I don't know how well he will succeed in accomplishing a "team" pass rush (no one outstanding player) but if he improves over last years effort, then our whole defense will be strengthened and our quickness and speed will be turned loose. As you said, we have the benefit of a greatly improved (on paper) offense which can make up for weak defensive play. It's going to be fun!
    May 29, 2018 at 9:51 AM
    Response: Thanks for the alert on the new pass-rush coach. Yep, it should be fun, either way.

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