Much fan concern revolves around the state of the 49ers defense going into next season, particularly regarding a pass defense that finished 22nd last season, with the team's 30 sacks landing them in the bottom quarter of the league. Those observing the team are likely also unimpressed with the personnel changes the team made in the offseason, signing Jeremiah Attaochu, he of 10 career sacks over a four-year career, and cutting team sack leader Elvis Dumervil. Sure, there are arguments to be made that young players on the team such as Cassius Marsh or Eli Harold still have the potential to break out, but the bottom line is that the team has not experienced any huge infusion of new talent at edge rusher.

However, there are other reasons to believe that the 49ers pass rush can take a major step forward going into the 2018 season. Here are four of those reasons.

1. Continuity


It was a constant refrain among defenders of former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith that his slow growth was due to having a new offensive coordinator for every year he was in the league until Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman came along. Well, that situation got even worse for the team in recent years, with entire coaching staffs changing season after season. With regards to the defense, this has added to the difficulties for young players like Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward in trying to gain a foothold in their NFL careers, so focused as they are on executing properly that there is less energy to simply play fast.

Being able to settle in the 4-3 alignment established by Robert Saleh and his defensive coaching staff for the second consecutive year will allow the players to finally apply the lessons of a previous season in taking a step forward in their development. Players confident within their roles will be able to play faster, and with regards to the pass rush, this will allow the interior line and edge rushers to attack with more explosiveness, already aware of why they are deployed the way they are as well as what their teammates are executing in their own roles.

2. A more experienced Robert Saleh


Saleh has coached in the NFL since 2005 and has experience in the 4-3 scheme the 49ers employ from his time with both Seattle and Jacksonville, but last year was his first as a defensive coordinator. On top of that, he got a late start in 2017 due to the 49ers waiting on the conclusion of Kyle Shanahan's Super Bowl run with the Falcons, and he was taking over defensive personnel that had put up a historically bad showing in 2016, landing at the very bottom of the league in points, overall yards, and rushing yards.

Under Saleh, the 49ers defense made a marked improvement over its 2016 performance through a combination of improved talent and a more cohesive coaching plan, although it is, of course, important to note that 2016 set a hilariously low bar. Going forward, Saleh will be able to draw upon his 2017 experiences as a brand new defensive coordinator and improve his game planning, doing a better job of getting personnel in situations and matchups where they will be most effective. As a more experienced defensive playcaller, he can put rushers in better positions to exploit weaknesses in opposing offenses and maximize his players' chances of sending quarterbacks to the turf.

3. An improved secondary


Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson opened 2017 as the starters at cornerback, which says pretty much all one needs to know about the state of the 49ers at that position. What is possibly even more damning is that Johnson started all 16 games for the team, illustrating a complete lack of depth. The 49ers made a concerted effort to improve the position this offseason, grabbing Richard Sherman in free agency, drafting Tarvarius Moore in the 3rd round, and signing Tarvarus McFadden as a priority undrafted free agent to complement the improving Ahkello Witherspoon.

Furthermore, the free safety position, which covers the middle third of the field, appears more solid compared to last year. Ward seemed the only viable option last season in that role, and when he went down with an injury in the offseason, the 49ers had to plug in a variety of substitutes they were less comfortable with like Lorenzo Jerome. (Remember him?) Over the course of 2017, however, players like backup Adrian Colbert and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt proved capable of holding down the position, so now the 49ers have a better understanding of their personnel and can choose with confidence among options like Ward, Colbert, recent 5th round pick D.J. Reed, or even Tartt in an emergency.

Strengthening coverage of opposing pass catchers could go a long way towards seeing improvements in the pass rush. Even without a noticeable infusion of talent among the team's rushers, forcing the quarterback to hold onto the ball for just that extra half-second, waiting for a receiver to shake loose, could make the difference between a completion and a sack.

4. An improved offense


It is no secret that improving one phase of a football team can result in better performance from the other two phases. Shanahan is known for his offensive genius, and over the past several months he has acquired several pieces well suited to the vision he wants to execute on that side of the ball, including Jerick McKinnon, Weston Richburg, Mike McGlinchey, and of course, Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers experienced a noticeable uptick in offensive production when Garoppolo took over the team, and that was with injured lineups and personnel inherited from the previous regime. True, opposing defenses now have film of Garoppolo operating within Shanahan's offense that they can use to specifically game plan against him, but there is no denying that the offense is now shaped much more in line with Shanahan's vision than it was at the start of the 2017 season.

Taken together, the 49ers are in a much stronger position to put points on the board and pressure the other team while keeping their own defense fresher. This has the potential to change the dynamics of how the defense operates, providing more opportunities to take risks and turn up the aggression while knowing the whole time that the offense has its back. The added confidence and rest could instill ferocity to the pass rush and bully opposing quarterbacks into mistakes and sacks.

While the lack of available talent in the draft and free agency surely played a role in the 49ers taking few tangible steps to improve the pass rush, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the second year of the Shanahan/Lynch regime will bear witness to numerous improvements that trickle throughout the team. With any luck, the end result will be a horde of 49ers uniforms getting in opposing quarterbacks' faces, play after play.