Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports


Solomon Thomas making an impact despite decreased playing time

Sep 22, 2018 at 8:50 AM


No area of the San Francisco 49ers defense is more intensely analysed than the defensive line, which comes under near constant scrutiny after first-round picks were spent on it from 2015 to 2017.

San Francisco's lack of talent off the edge has placed even more pressure on Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas to produce pass rush from the interior. Buckner is quickly delivering the goods. The 2016 seventh overall pick already has 3.5 sacks in two games and has once again been a wrecking ball on the inside. Yet, Thomas -- who has the loftiest draft status of the three having been taken third overall by the Niners last year -- has come in for criticism from some quarters.

Thomas has received the least playing time of the three. He played on 35 (49%) of the defensive snaps in the opener and just 36 (47%) against the Detroit Lions in Week 2, leading many to question a perceived lack of impact from a player who has only three sacks in 16 games to start his career.

Yet while Thomas has fallen behind Buckner and Armstead in playing time and does not have the raw numbers that will have been expected of a third overall pick, the suggestion that he is not affecting the game is a false one, with Week 2 a fine showcase of his abilities.

Thomas may not have had a sack last week, but he was able to get into the Lions backfield when defending both the run and the pass.

He was one of the best run defenders on the team in 2017. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, 78% of the 32 plays Thomas made against the run were stops, the highest such percentage of any player on the defense. And his run-stopping capabilities were on show versus Detroit. On this play Thomas easily drives the blocking tight end back and then disengages before firing into the backfield and making first contact with the running back.


Yet Thomas was primarily drafted so high because of his skills as a pass rusher, and the consensus is that he has not done enough in that regard. However, while he has as yet not been the force he was at Stanford, Thomas had success disrupting the pocket and put Matthew Stafford under pressure in a game in which the Niners struggled to get to the Lions quarterback.

Sacks are what every pass rusher wants to rack up, but pressure that doesn't get home but gets the quarterback off his spot and forces him into a bad throw is valued just as highly by defensive coordinators. Thomas had four such plays last Sunday. According to Pro Football Focus (h/t Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area), Thomas registered four hurries on 22 pass-rush snaps.

One of those hurries came as a result of a key trait that convinced the Niners to draft Thomas so high: his quickness working to the inside. Thomas easily beats Frank Ragnow to the inside and swats away his attempted punch, giving him a clear lane to Stafford, who is able to avoid the sack but is forced into a checkdown to the running back.


Thomas was also able to give Stafford problems pass rushing from the outside. Here he does an excellent job converting his speed off the snap to power to drive Taylor Decker towards Stafford, who steps up but only into the hit of Armstead.


The stunt on the play below would have resulted in a sack for Thomas if not for the lighting quick release of Stafford, the Lions quarterback fortunate to avoid being sacked by the former Stanford star at least once.


That Thomas was not able to turn any of those pressures into sacks speaks to the argument of those who believe he has already failed to justify his draft status, but such pass rushes are clear evidence he is contributing for the Niners and he is likely to have more opportunities to do so going forward.

Buckner played 82 percent of the defensive snaps last weekend, a number that will not be sustainable for the entire season. Even with Ronald Blair and Sheldon Day playing often and playing well, Thomas is the leading candidate to eat into some of those snaps, as the 49ers know he can consistently win the one-on-one matchups that are a byproduct of the double teams Buckner and Armstead are adept at drawing.

At this stage of his fledgling career, it is fair to say Thomas' production is not worthy of a player taken so high and that his low level of playing time is not what was envisaged by most when San Francisco selected him. However, this is a very deep 49ers D-Line that will likely rely heaviest on a different rotation each week. Thomas clearly has the talent to improve his production and showed enough against Detroit to see an increase in snaps. The pressure has been there from Thomas, the numbers will follow.
The views 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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