Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Film room: How defensive coordinator Robert Saleh manufactured pressure against Arizona

Oct 31, 2018 at 5:24 AM

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The Arizona Cardinals completed the season sweep of the 49ers in Glendale, Arizona on Sunday with an 18-15 win during the final minutes of the Week Eight game. It was yet another loss by one score, the 49ers' fifth such game of the season and 13th such game since last season.

It's becoming harder and harder to find the positive amidst the constant stream of consistently negative aspects that befall the team week after week: the turnovers, dropped passes, missed blocks, sacks, interceptions, missed tackles, blown coverages, and injuries. The 49ers have experienced it all in their race toward the number one overall pick.

They'll likely be targeting the much-coveted premier pass rusher they desperately need to boost their pass rush against the NFC West. Through eight games, the 49ers are generating pressure as follows:

Kirk Cousins MIN 43 14 3 10 5 40 0 0 32.6 21.4 50.0 66.7 60.4
Matt Stafford DET 56 18 2 15 7 114 0 0 31.1 11.1 46.7 67.3 71.5
Patrick Mahomes KC 41 15 2 12 4 35 1 0 36.6 13.3 33.3 40.0 70.1
Philip Rivers LAC 40 13 1 12 7 81 1 0 32.5 7.7 58.3 81.8 106.6
Josh Rosen ARI 11 26 1 10 3 26 0 0 42.3 9.1 30.0 44.4 39.6
Aaron Rodgers GB 53 21 3 16 3 79 0 0 39.6 14.3 18.8 44.4 47.7
Jared Goff LAR 27 6 2 4 1 6 0 0 22.2 33.3 25.0 75.0 39.6
Josh Rosen ARI 45 10 3 6 2 50 1 0 22.2 30.0 33.3 75.0 104.2
Source: Pro Football Focus

In the meantime, we're seeing a shuffling in recent games along the defensive front by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as he tries to manufacture pressure in other ways. Defensive end Solomon Thomas has seen an uptick in snaps along the interior, playing 15 snaps along the interior against the Rams prior to this past weekend's game. DeForest Buckner has played an increased number of snaps at the 1-technique tackle spot as well.

Saleh has also sent blitzing safeties, linebackers, and corners from everywhere on the field to generate some kind of rush, preferring to use a "fire zone" blitz to overwhelm one side of an opposing offensive line.

Let's take a look at the various ways in which Saleh generated pressure against the Cardinals.


One such way Saleh has been able to manufacture pressure with some success is through the use of the "tackle-end exchange" stunt, or the TEX stunt for short. Fans familiar with the intricacies of former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme may be familiar with this type of pass rush.

In the tackle/end stunt, the defense looks to create a numbers advantage in the pass rush or running game by effectively removing one or two blockers from the equation and making them block air. The defensive tackle rushes the B-gap and if possible tries to loop around to the C-gap to draw the blockers out. The defensive end will take one or two up-field steps to get the offensive tackle to commit, and then will loop inside of the defensive tackle to open A-gap.

With the Cardinals backed up against their own goal line on third-and-7, the 49ers sent their first tackle/end stunt of the game at quarterback Josh Rosen, a double TEX stunt with Thomas (No. 94) as the defensive tackle and Cassius Marsh (No. 54) as the defensive end on the left side of the defense and DeForest Buckner (No. 99) as the defensive tackle and Ronald Blair (No. 98) as the defensive end on the right side of the defense.
The 49ers are in a nickel "Tampa 2" coverage against the Cardinals 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and Rosen is in the "shotgun far trey left" formation.

Linebackers Reuben Foster (No. 56) and Fred Warner (No. 48) are showing double A-gap blitz pressure.

Rosen drops back at the snap looking for Larry Fitzgerald (No. 11) over the middle on a curl route at the sticks but the duo of Foster and Warner drop out of the double A-gaps and into hook/seam zones while K'Waun Williams (No. 24) funnels Fitzgerald off to them. Fitzgerald's route grabs Warner's attention and Warner runs with him covering the route over the top.

By this point Rosen has dropped back into the end zone as Thomas takes on the guard and tackle with Marsh looping around him into the A-gap. On the other side, Buckner eats the double team as Blair loops around to the opposite A-gap that Marsh runs through and attacks the center. Marsh breaks through the line and as Rosen tries to escape the pocket, he flings a pass into his offensive lineman while going to the ground.

The play was ruled "intentional grounding" and the 49ers were awarded the safety.

Later in the half with the Cardinals down 5-3 and driving with less than two minutes left in the second quarter, Saleh dialed up another tackle/end stunt but sent pressure off the edge with it. It was not a blitz in that it remained a four man rush.

This time, Marsh lines up outside again but is trading places on the stunt with Arik Armstead (No. 91). Linebacker Malcolm Smith (No. 51) is rushing off the edge from Marsh's left. The defense behind them is showing a cover two man shell.

The Cardinals are running the curl/seam concept. At the snap, the coverage shell morphs into a cover one "robber". As Rosen drops back, he scans the right side looking for the seam route down the hash but safety Antone Exum (No. 38) drops down into the "robber" spot to take away anything down the seam or running across the field.

The 49ers defense overwhelms the right side of the Cardinals offensive line. Armstead, working from the interior 1-technique spot, rushes the A-gap while Marsh initially rushes the B-gap. As soon as Armstead squeezes his gap, Marsh loops around and rushes the opposite A-gap that's wide open after the running back leaks out on the check down.

The Cardinals line never slides to pick up the rush and Smith rushes around the right tackle around the edge. Rosen sees Marsh as he looks left and tries to escape to his right. But Smith is right there as he beats the tackle. He cuts underneath his blocker but Armstead has already beaten his man and tackles Rosen for a nine-yard loss.

Running the TEX stunt became a regular thing any time the Cardinals faced a 3rd down and this time Saleh disguises the rush with the personnel grouping.

On the Cardinals' first drive of the second half facing third-and-6, Rosen lined up the offense in a "shotgun far trips left" formation running all curls from the trips to the left and a curl/flat concept to the right against the 49ers' cover three "buzz." The cover three buzz works the same as the cover one robber above except it's run behind a zone coverage where the safety drops down into hook zone and the linebacker drops into the curl/flat.

Along the defensive front, Marsh lines up inside at the defensive tackle spot at the 3-technique, with Blair outside him at the wide-9 technique spot. At the 0-technique spot is Armstead with Buckner at the other wide-9 spot. Warner lines up over the tackle to the left of the offense and Elijah Lee shows pressure from the A-gap to Armstead's left.

Rosen takes the snap and drops back looking to his right based on the pre-snap alignment of the defense looking for the curl/flat to tight end Ricky Seals-Jones. Armstead rushes the A-gap to his right and immediately draws the double team of the center and left guard, leaving the A-gap wide open.

Blair takes two vertical steps and threatens the right tackle but cuts behind Marsh, who draws the double team of the right guard and right tackle after Blair poses no threat. However, Blair sprints through the open A-gap and gets a free rush at Rosen. Ward, the buzz safety on this play, buzzes to the hook as Seals-Jones hits the top of his route.

Blair forces Rosen to hurry his throw to Seals-Jones and the pass is low and to the left as Ward almost comes up with an interception.


Another way Saleh schemes up pressure packages is through the use of blitzes from nickel defenders, whether in a fire zone blitz or regular nickel off the edge blitz. This time, Saleh's aggressiveness sends Richard Sherman (No. 25) on a corner blitz. He recorded a sack on the play, his first sack since 2012.

A look at the assignments that make this sack possible shows how each defender plays his responsibility. Armstead (LDE) in the 6-technique spot is responsible for slanting into the C-gap to his right. DJ Jones (No. 93, LDT) slants into the A-gap from the 3-technique spot to his right. Earl Mitchell (No. 90, RDT) in the 1-technique spot slants into the B-gap to his right. And Thomas rushes the edge or C-gap to his right.

The coverage shell is a cover three "cloud" that compensates for the blitzing cornerback by covering his deep third. Ahkello Witherspoon (No. 23) is the trey side corner with Jaquaski Tartt (No. 29) as the safety and Ward as the other deep safety. Both safeties and the corner rotate into thirds down the hashes to cover the vacated spot. Warner, Lee, and Smith play their zone underneath and will match any route that comes into their zone.

The Cardinals are in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) with a trey set to the left (two receivers and a tight end on the same side). The play is a play action pass looking for two digs across the middle, one shallow, and the other deeper across the middle.
Rosen executes a hard play fake and drops back as Sherman comes off the edge. The other defensive backs and linebackers cover their coverage responsibilities and bracket the receivers, giving Rosen no option for a quick throw. Rosen looks to his right and tries to escape to his left as he sees Sherman's blitz off the edge but it's too late. Sherman gets the sack.


The 49ers collected just their second interception of the season when Tartt dropped into a coverage zone from the line of scrimmage and read Rosen's eyes all the way across the field and jumped in front of a dig route over the middle.

The 49ers are showing a hybrid cover three shell to the trips side of the Cardinals formation with a zero coverage to the right of the defense on the single receiver side. Both Warner and Smith are showing a double A-gap pressure look pre-snap in the hopes of baiting Rosen into an underneath throw.

Tartt is playing the "RAT" defender and dropping into an underneath zone on the opposite side the quarterback is looking. The idea here is that since Rosen is likely working the trips side of the formation, the "RAT" positions himself on the opposite side so as to disguise his intentions and increasing the likelihood the quarterback doesn't see him.

Williams is at the nickel spot over the number two receiver Christian Kirk (No. 13) in the trips spot. Sherman is playing off coverage with outside leverage over the number one receiver Chad Williams (No. 10). Ward is the safety on the near hash about 15 yards off the ball eyeing any vertical route from the number three receiver Fitzgerald (No. 11), leaving Witherspoon alone man-to-man on receiver Trent Sherfield (No. 16) on the cover zero side.

From the trips side of the formation, the snap reveals a spacing concept being run. Fitzgerald runs out to the flat, Williams runs a deep curl in front of Sherman, and Kirk runs a curl or spot route over the middle.

Smith and Warner have "funnel" responsibility and will take the running back on any route into their zone. Smith stays on the running back David Johnson (No. 31) so Warner drops into the hook/seam zone underneath. Tartt, playing the "RAT" defender, reads Rosen's eyes and drops to mid field as Rosen looks him down. Rosen looks to his right and Tartt reads the middle spot route coming open as Rosen winds up to throw. Rosen has to hurry his throw due to Armstead coming open on a free rush at him so lets it fly as Tartt undercuts Kirk's route for the interception.

Disguising the coverage and defensive fronts has given the 49ers something they can build off of going forward absent a viable pass rush threat. That will come with some growing pains as we have seen lately due to miscommunication and other mistakes but Saleh is doing generally a good job of putting players in position to succeed according to Richard Sherman. However, it's the players who are having a hard time executing the basics. Like Sherman also said, it's a scheme that is really tough to beat when it's executed properly, and for most of the game on Sunday, the Cardinals couldn't do anything until late. The 49ers now must find ways to close out these close games.

All pics and images courtesy of the NFL.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
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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