Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports


Film From the Field House: The 49ers’ Defense is Once Again Virtuous

Bret Rumbeck
Oct 31, 2020 at 12:00 PM


A few weeks ago, I ran into a San Francisco 49ers fan on the street. We did not know one another but quickly bonded over the intersecting 'S' and 'F' on our jackets.

"What's with that defense this year?" my new friend asked.

"Well, they lost a few guys – Bosa and Thomas. Blair is still on IR, and Sherman hasn't played since Week one," I responded.

"But they were so good last year! Their defense got them to the Super Bowl! I don't get it," he said.

Our street conversation was the day after the 49ers were embarrassed by the Miami Dolphins, and fans were looking to hold an immediate requiem for a soulless team.

Over the past two weeks, the 49ers' defense has generated five turnovers, held two quarterbacks to under 200 yards passing, and ground the opposition into lifeless pulp.

Give credit to 49ers' defensive coordinator Robert Saleh for getting his eleven defenders and the reserve units back on track.

The Defense is Better Without Kwon Alexander


I will fully admit I thought the 49ers' defense was leaps and bounds better with veteran linebacker Kwon Alexander. He joined the team and had some flaws in his game, but I thought his aggression and speed were far more critical than a few talent deficiencies.

There was undoubtedly a vast improvement to the 49ers' defense last season with Alexander, but this season, the defense looks off when he is on the field.

Alexander often over pursues the ball carrier or overshoots a gap, causing a giant hole in the defense.

Further, Alexander has been particularly bad when playing a mobile quarterback. He was out of position on runs by New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, allowing Jones to gain huge chunks of yardage at will.

Since Alexander has been out of the line-up due to an ankle injury, Saleh has played and then started second-year linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. The 49ers' defense has been more fundamentally sound, especially in Week 7, with Al-Shaair in the huddle.

Patriots quarterback Cam Newton racked up approximately 4,800 on the ground during his first eight years in the NFL, averaging 686 yards per season.

Newton is still a run threat, and I thought the Patriots would exploit the 49ers' apparent weakness with running quarterbacks.

However, with Al-Shaair, veteran linebacker Fred Warner, and defensive lineman Arik Armstead, the 49ers held Newton to 19 yards rushing on five attempts and a whole 98 yards passing– his lowest rush statistics this season.

Newton was rewarded with a seat on the bench and a bouquet of maple and oak leaves.

3rd Quarter – 2nd and 3 at the NE 34 (14:32)

The only real criticism of Al-Shaair is he doesn't shed blocks easily.


New England ran a creative lead play early in the 3rd quarter when they needed to gain three yards. Tackle Isaiah Wynn shot right out to block Al-Shaair, and was able to push him downfield at ease.


Al-Shaair made no real effort to get away from Wynn, and the Patriots gained 12 yards.

Again, this is a light criticism and something that Al-Shaair can work on in practice and games.

Getting Clever Rushing Four or Five Men


The lack of players like defensive end Nick Bosa, defensive linemen Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas, and cornerback Richard Sherman has forced Saleh to get creative with his defensive line. Last year, he could call an overwhelming pass rush, only using four men, and find success.

This season is almost a back to the future moment for Saleh.

During Saleh's first two years with the 49ers, he learned his defense did not perform at its highest levels with subpar players in crucial positions. It also failed to work with players who didn't understand the scheme.

On January 24, 2020, Sherman noted the 49ers' lack of talent and understanding of the scheme was one of the biggest problems in 2018.

"He's (Saleh) calling a lot of the same plays. He's scheming it up just as he always has. I guess he has more talent, and I guess people are executing the calls that he calls. That was one of the things where I would get frustrated with his criticisms because people were like, 'oh, my God, he's calling a terrible game.' I was like, 'well, he's calling a great game and poor execution more than anything.' You call a blitz, and they don't blitz. You call a cover two, they play cover three."

This year, even with key players on injured reserve, Saleh has inspired his defensive line to shut down the opposition.

3rd Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 21 (12:58)

The subtle nuances in football never cease to amaze me.


Saleh called a blitz early in the third quarter to try and halt a Patriots drive. On the surface, it looks like linebacker Dre Greenlaw coming in like a freight train off the right side of the formation.

However, the film shows why the stunt worked so well.

At the snap, both defensive linemen Kevin Givens and Kerry Hyder slanted to their right. Rookie defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw also looped to his right, trying to shoot through the B-gap.


These subtle moves drew the Patriots' offensive line to their collective left. The slant by Givens and Hyder occupied three offensive linemen.

Greenlaw timed his stunt perfectly, moving just before the ball was snapped. He went untouched to Sack newton for an eight-yard loss.

Seattle is always a challenging game for the 49ers, but I expect them to give Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson fits throughout the afternoon with the defense coming off two solid games.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
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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