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49ers 2019 Training Camp Primer: Defensive Line

Jul 25, 2019 at 10:45 AM

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When the 49ers opened up training camp in 2018, one critical piece of the defense was missing: the pass rusher. The 49ers started 2018 with Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead as their base down defensive ends while Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair also saw a significant amount of playing time in sub packages on defense after not bringing back Elvis Dumervil (who retired anyway). The result was a mediocre defensive unit that ranked tied 22nd in total sacks with 37. Per Pro Football Focus (PFF) the 49ers pass rush ranked 27th in the league and ranked 14th in total pressure rate. Not bad, but also not great.

Entering 2019, they had the 2nd overall pick in the NFL draft plus nearly 80 million in cap space to go out and sign free agents. At the start of free agency, the 49ers traded a 2020 second- round pick for Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Dee Ford, who had 15 sacks and a 9% pressure rate across all snaps in 2018 according to PFF. Shortly after this, the 49ers found themselves on the clock with a chance to draft a premier pass rusher and did so, selecting Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa.

It is a crowded position group and the 49ers face some tough choices as they head into camp this week.

Projected starters

Dee Ford

As mentioned above, Dee Ford racked up 15 of the Chiefs' 52 league-leading sacks last season. With the 49ers switching to the wide-9 defensive front, Ford is the prototype weak side edge defender the 49ers have been looking for. He's not a guy with a variety of pass rush moves as his main (and best) trait is as a speed rusher. However, his burst off the line more than makes up for the lack of a quality move.

Working against Cardinals right tackle Andrew Smith (No. 71) here, Ford (No. 55 in all gifs) is lined up as the left defensive end in a two-point stance. Ford uses his speed to beat Smith around the edge, who over sets with his first drop step and cannot recover by the time Ford bends the edge. Ford has the necessary flexibility to be able to bend and dip around Smith and the balance to recover as he's being shoved from behind. Quarterback Josh Rosen has nowhere to go as Ford finishes with the sack.

In a play similar to the above against the Cardinals, Ford again puts the right tackle on skates, working from the same left side of the defense. Right tackle Bill Turner (No. 77) sets too horizontally this time and Ford's speed rush allows him to bend right around the edge as soon as Turner realizes what's happening. Ford finishes the play with the strip sack.

He can also play with his hand in the dirt too.

Working against Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles (No. 72), Ford is in a more traditional wide-9 technique spot with his hand in the dirt. However, this does not affect his get off as he's still able to put Bolles on skates around the edge. The speed rush effectively gets Bolles' feet crossed-up as he gets too horizontal on his jump set. Ford uses his speed to dip and rip through the block and still finishes with a strip sack as he's being shoved down from behind.

DeForest Buckner

Buckner is, by all measures, the 49ers best player from top to bottom. He's one of only a half dozen players remaining from the Trent Baalke era. Everyone else has either been cut, traded, or retired. And a few others are targets to be cut by Week One this season. For Buckner though, he's staring a new contract in the face after his rookie deal and is poised to build on his breakout year in 2018. He recorded 13 sacks last season, was 4th in total quarterback hits, and 12th overall in total pressures from the interior, according to Pro Football Focus.

Buckner's greatest asset to the 49ers defensive front is the conversion of speed to power. He has a variety of pass rush moves he's perfected in three seasons thus far.

Club over

Here Buckner (No. 99 in all gifs) shows nice get-off speed at the snap to beat Seattle right guard Jordan Simmons (No. 66). Using a "club over" move, a type of swim move, Buckner powerfully clubs away the blocker's initial punch and speeds through the A-gap before finishing with a sack on quarterback Russell Wilson.

Bull fork

Buckner uses a bull fork technique here by getting head up on the tackle, bull rushing him into the back field while at the same time controlling the blocker's arms and driving him up like a fork lift before he finishes with the sack.

Swim move

Buckner's swim is nice and compact for a defensive tackle his size. Here he keeps a tight and compact frame while executing the arm over portion of the swim. This keeps his chest plate clean and doesn't expose him to being locked up in the middle of his rush.

Swipe and rip

Buckner recorded three sacks in the opening game of the season last year and this was one of them. Here he uses a swipe and rip move to beat the blocker and finish with the sack on quarterback Kirk Cousins. First he "swipes" at the guard's elbow and controls his arm, enabling him to get around the blocker. Next he uses a "rip" to get free of any other contact while getting to the quarterback.

The two defensive linemen listed above are locks to be starters and feature prominently as three-down players. The next group is likely starters.

Likely starters

Nick Bosa

I wrote about Nick Bosa here at length for 49ersWebzone but he's worth another look. Bosa is listed as 6-foot-4 and 265lbs, the ideal height and weight for an edge rusher. Bosa has a compact frame and doesn't have the wingspan that someone like the Jaguars Josh Allen had in this year's draft but that difference rarely shows up on film.

That compact frame allows Bosa (No. 97 in all gifs) to get up inside of an offensive tackle and shed him quite easily since his center of gravity is more compact. On this play, Bosa controls the TCU left tackle by getting inside the tackle and controlling the wrist and arm of the tackle's punch. Bosa engages very quickly, 2-hand swipes his opponent away, and quickly disengages and gets back outside to get to the quarterback for the strip sack.

Bosa has a variety of pass rush moves that he can utilize to the inside as well.

He has an effective inside swim move he usually utilizes when he's beaten a blocker around the edge repeatedly. The blocker anticipates Bosa rushing the outside edge again and Bosa sells that by giving a quick jab step outside toward that rush lane. As soon as the blocker commits, Bosa executes an arm-over or swim technique to blow past the blocker and forces the quarterback to rush the throw.
He is also quick from a wide-9 spot as well.

Here against USC in the 2018 Cotton Bowl, Bosa records a sack from the wide-9 technique spot. It's a great spot for him to rush from for several reasons: 1) it allows him to translate his speed to power in a more direct line rush to the quarterback and 2) it also give him a split second longer to determine his path of attack.

First he swats away the arms of the the tight end after winning the "half-man" relationship and then rips through the block of the running back all while maintaining his power and balance. He gets to the quarterback from the wide-9 spot in fewer than 2.4 seconds (2.38 to be exact).

Arik Armstead

Arik Armstead is a lock to make the 53-man roster this season. The only question is where do defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek line him up to get the most production value from him? Last year, Armstead played about 57% of the defensive snaps and didn't play more than 40 snaps per game after Week 3. He lined up everywhere from the interior to nose tackle to edge rusher and featured prominently on the edge, though being an edge pass rusher is not really his specialty.

His best snaps came from the edge as a run defender where he can use his length and size to beat opposing blockers while setting the edge. As a pass rusher from the edge, 6.4% of his 311 pass rush snaps accounted for a pressure (sack, hit, hurry) on the quarterback. Not bad, but also not great for a guy who played the majority of his snaps there.

His strength in the running game is predicated on being able to effectively use his length to beat the blocker in front of him. Here (No.91 in all gifs) he steps laterally with the movement of the tight end to keep gap discipline while playing a 2-gap technique. He keeps a low pad level and gets inside the blocker's chest plate before discarding him and finishing with a tackle for a loss. His low pad level allows him to use the length of his body and arms effectively in the frontal plane at the point of attack.

While he was lined up on the edge here, he kicks down inside to the 3-technique spot with the Rams motion. Same as the play above, he engages with a lower pad level than the Rams right guard, 2-gaps with the zone stretch run to the right, and finishes the play by discarding the blocker and taking down running back Todd Gurley for a one-yard gain.

His only upside is that he appears to be at his best against the run. He provided little value as an edge pass rusher or an interior pass rusher. He's likely to see the same type of snap counts again this season and it's hard to make a case that he'll be in San Francisco beyond 2019. For now though, he's a likely candidate start somewhere along the defensive front.

Solomon Thomas

By all accounts, Solomon Thomas is the most disappointing draft pick of the last three Shanahan/Lynch drafts (minus Reuben Foster of course). The former third overall pick of the 2017 draft has not panned out as one would have expected him to. And it's not his fault. Thomas was inserted as the strong side defensive end in his rookie season after playing 91% of his collegiate snaps on the interior of the Stanford defense.

For a variety of factors, his performance the last two seasons has been underwhelming. After the conclusion of the 2018 season, the 49ers fired defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina. It was reported by Matt Barrows of The Athletic on an episode of Niners Nation Better Rivals podcast that Thomas was not a favorite of Zgonina and that it was the position coach himself who pigeonholed Thomas into the role he's been in since his rookie season. Firing Zgonina and hiring Kocurek seemed to indicate a shift in talent evaluation at the benefit of Thomas. Saleh promised that Kocurek would give Thomas a fair evaluation heading into the offseason program.

Thomas was also dealing with the aftermath of his sister's suicide in January 2018, an issue that severely limited his emotional well-being heading into the season. He has recently stated that he is 100% mentally and physically ready, he looks as solid as he's ever been and recently spent the summer offseason training with Aaron Donald.

His status to make the roster was never in doubt. And they're not likely to trade him before Week One at this point. But to get the most use out of him in the wide-9 front, they'll have to kick him inside as it's from there where he's earned his best grades.

As an edge rusher in the play above (#94 in all gifs) on the right side of the defense, he just doesn't have the kind of bend and speed you'd expect from someone who ranked in the 94th percentile of all edge athletes in 2017.

He's much better suited to being a pass rusher from the interior where can use that athleticism to beat less athletic interior linemen. He uses a chop to beat the blocker and speeds through the gap to get to Stafford here, he just needs a little more work finishing the play. But the rush from the interior is drastically different and more efficient than from the edge.

And good luck double-teaming him in the run game. As an interior or edge run defender, he's at his best. Here he effectively holds his ground in the B-gap before shedding the blockers and making the run stop after a minimal gain.

There is no doubt he makes the roster. The question is where he fits. Currently, he's slated to compete for one of the two interior spots with Sheldon Day.

Projected back-ups

Ronald Blair

Ronald Blair was second on the team with eight sacks last season. Blair played 49% of the defensive snaps, mostly along the edge. He graded at 66.5 in run defense and 54.7 in pass defense per PFF, resulting in an overall grade of 62.1, just about average. Eight sacks combined with that pass rush grade suggests that he has high boom or bust potential heading into 2019. He probably will make the roster but his status beyond 2019 is in severe jeopardy depending on what happens with Armstead's role plus the additions of Bosa and Ford. He could find himself further down the depth chart than desired.

Sheldon Day

Sheldon Day had trouble finding a spot on a crowded Jaguars roster after being drafted in 2016. He came over to the 49ers mid-way through 2017 and immediately found himself in a rotational role in Robert Saleh's defense after already having familiarity with it in Jacksonville when Saleh was the linebackers coach. As a primarily 1-technique defensive tackle, Day played 25% of the defensive snaps last year, posting an overall 62.1 grade per PFF with his worst snaps coming in run defense (42.7 grade overall). Sheldon Day has as much of a chance at making the roster as he does at being cut (analysis!). But seriously though, by Week One, Day could find himself on the outs if someone like Kentavius Street emerges throughout camp.

Kentavius Street

There perhaps is no more intriguing prospect than Kentavius Street. The second year prospect out of North Carolina State spent his rookie season on the injured reserve list recovering from an ACL tear he sustained while training for the 2018 NFL Draft. Before that, he had a viral video of him circulating where he could be seen back squatting 700lbs. By all accounts he's still just as freaky in the weight room and is probably the team gym rat.

His pass rush moves will serve him well as an interior defender. With good speed, strength, and a variety of moves, I have a hard time seeing him not make the roster in at least a back-up role.

One way he wins is with an effective swipe and rip move (No. 35 in all gifs). Lined up on the left side of the offense, he comes off the snap and controls the blocker's momentum with the swipe at the elbow of the arm and rips through with his inside arm to gain leverage before disengaging and finishing the rep with half of a sack.

He can also win with just a simple swipe move. In an isolated rush here as the left defensive end against the right tackle (no this isn't Mike McGlinchey either!), Street stutter steps to the left and gets the tackle to engage first. As he speeds around the edge, he swipes away the punch and finishes with a sack.

He's also very powerful. It was recently reported by Matt Barrows of The Athletic (behind paywall) that the 49ers "had to buy him a set of dumbbells they previously hadn't had a need for" because he is that strong. That strength shows up on film. Using a long arm technique here from the left, Street bull rushes the tackle into the back field forcing the quarterback to step up into the defense. The technique inevitably causes the tackle to overset, get his feet crossed, and the rest is history. Street gets a good initial shove at first contact.

DJ Jones

The NFL no longer has a need for the 0-technique nose tackle, the primary position Jones plays, but he's not the typical nose tackle. He's lighter and quicker than the standard nose tackle from eras past, but this enables him to be a stout run defender as he can quickly penetrate the A-gap before being blocked. He played just 22% of the defensive snaps last year and recorded 17 tackles, 11 of them solo. The odds of Jones making the roster are slim with Sheldon Day, Solomon Thomas, Armstead, and Street all competing inside for playing time.

The rest

Honorable mentions go to Jullian Taylor, Kevin Givens, Jamell Garcia-Williams, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Cedric Thornton, and Damontre Moore.

Jullian Taylor played well at the end of the 2018 season but in a limited roll. His preseason production last year caught the eye of a few analysts who thought he might slot into an eventual pass rushing role. His chances are slim at this point but he is a good candidate for practice squad duties.

Kevin Givens went undrafted out of Penn State this past offseason. He figures to be competing with an already full position at 3-technique.

Jamell Garcia-Williams will also likely make the practice squad based on his collegiate production at the University of Alabama-Birmingham where he recorded 9.5 sacks last season.

Kapron Lewis-Moore is slated to compete for the infamous "big end" spot (strong side defensive end) but that position has an awful lot of talent ahead of him.

Cedric Thornton is entering his seventh season in the NFL after spending time with the Eagles, Cowboys, and most recently the Bills last season. He's had a decent run in the NFL with a combined 221 tackles in six seasons (150 solo, 71 assists). At this point it's safe to assume he's a camp body even with his veteran presence.

Damontre Moore was just signed as of this writing to a spot and a chance to compete for a defensive tackle role at the 5-technique, primarily where he played most recently with the San Diego Fleet of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football (AAF). He recorded 7.5 sacks for the fleet but is currently on his 7th NFL team. He's only 26. Yikes. But he is strong, as seen in the gif below (No. 94) where he recorded the game sealing sack against Atlanta in the AAF.


There is a bevy of talent to go around with this position group as five potential starters are all first round picks. I project the current starters will be:

Strong side DE: Nick Bosa
Defensive Tackle: Solomon Thomas
Defensive Tackle: Deforest Buckner
Weak side DE: Dee Ford

The rest like Armstead, Street, Blair and (insert your favorite depth player's name here) will serve in some kind of back-up role to those four starters. It never hurts to have a ton of depth at this position group throughout the season to keep guys fresh and healthy heading into the playoffs. But not all of these guys are going to make it and that's a pretty good position to be in.

Next: Linebackers
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

  • Mike Kenney
    Use them all, rest them all, even Defo. I envision Solly and Street punishing OL trying to get double teams on Defo. Wear down the middle. Let AA spell Ford on run downs and give a breather to Bosa in his first long NFL season. As a unit of 6 they will terrorize OLs everywhere. It’s not like there’s a weakness anywhere
    Jul 26, 2019 at 7:34 AM

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