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The Air Raid Killer Defense: Why I think we're trying out so many safeties...

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As per usual, the San Francisco 49ers will be facing their NFC West rivals, the Arizona Cardinals twice in the NFL regular season, including on Week 1 of this year's schedule. Led by former Texas Tech coach Kilff Kingsbury, whose Air Raid Offense was part of a revolutionary change in college offenses throughout the past decade, the Cards burned our defense twice, averaging 27 ppg by spreading out and compromising the interior of our staple wide 9 fronts.

Lately, there's been discussion about why the 49ers tried out a number of FA safeties, with Jonathan Cyprien and UDFA Evan Foster ultimately making the team. My hunch is because Saleh's planning on running variations of the 3-3-3 "Air Raid Killer" defensive set, characterized in the secondary by what are some call "Big Nickel" packages new DB coach Tony Oden use to run with DL coach Chris Kocurek back in their days with the Detroit Lions.



As you will see here, the defensive front concentrates its alignment up the middle to protect against the interior gapping vulnerabilities our Wide 9 is susceptible to, with both defensive ends line up over opposing tackles at the 4 Tech. The second tier will benefit from us fielding 3 fieldburners in Warner, Alexander, and Greenlaw who can range from sideline to sideline protecting the flats, plugging holes and dropping back in coverage with the best of them. And then finally, as the last line of defense, we have a secondary anchored up the middle by the "middle safety" who will be a hybrid S/LB type asked to play a variety of roles, much like Jimmie Ward alluded to in his last press conference.
[ Edited by RasSuar on Aug 28, 2020 at 4:42 AM ]
Good read It would be nice to have a counter defense to az sin last year they seemed to tires out our dline quickly
That's interesting but I believe it's just because this year we are allowed to keep veteran players on the practice squad. It's much better to have cheap veteran players than rookies especially because they have the experience in the NFL and college players barely got any this year. At least they don't have to waste time preparing for preseason games so that may help the rookies a little to make up for time lost
[ Edited by elguapo on Aug 21, 2020 at 6:25 AM ]
Originally posted by elguapo:
That's interesting but I believe it's just because this year we are allowed to keep veteran players on the practice squad. It's much better to have cheap veteran players than rookies especially because they have the experience in the NFL and college players barely got any this year. At least they don't have to waste time preparing for preseason games so that may help the rookies a little to make up for time lost

Jonathan Cyprien is a veteran. Evan Foster is not, though. Also, its not just us getting veterans but the type we're signing in the secondary. It's our slot corner position which has thinned out with injuries to K'wuan Williams and DJ Reed but we're signing box safeties. Makes little sense unless we're thinking about retooling our secondary schemes with more hybrid SS/LB types. That "middle safety" spot is exactly the type of role which those guys could conceivably fill.
[ Edited by RasSuar on Aug 21, 2020 at 7:33 AM ]
Originally posted by RasSuar:
Originally posted by elguapo:
That's interesting but I believe it's just because this year we are allowed to keep veteran players on the practice squad. It's much better to have cheap veteran players than rookies especially because they have the experience in the NFL and college players barely got any this year. At least they don't have to waste time preparing for preseason games so that may help the rookies a little to make up for time lost

Jonathan Cyprien is a veteran. Evan Foster is not, though. Also, its not just us getting veterans but the type we're signing in the secondary. It's our slot corner position which has thinned out with injuries to K'wuan Williams and DJ Reed but we're signing box safeties. Makes little sense unless we're thinking about retooling our secondary schemes with more hybrid SS/LB types. That "middle safety" spot is exactly the type of role which those guys could conceivably fill.

I don't know if thats the reason. As we only play the cards twice out of 16 games, so teams aren't going to sacrifice depth in other areas that they deem more important just to prepare for a team they play twice. I do think with the team able to dress 2 more players and a bigger practice squad the team is scouting everything. That includes getting some vets snaps with your playbook should you need some on speed dial once the season hits and injuries happen.

However for the sake of discussion I'm sure the defense will add more wrinkles just as it did last year. The Patriots have been going a ton of big nickel for a couple years now to help themselves be more viable against situations where the run or pass isn't so obvious. We will see.

Good discussion btw
Originally posted by Willisfn4life:
I don't know if thats the reason. As we only play the cards twice out of 16 games, so teams aren't going to sacrifice depth in other areas that they deem more important just to prepare for a team they play twice. I do think with the team able to dress 2 more players and a bigger practice squad the team is scouting everything. That includes getting some vets snaps with your playbook should you need some on speed dial once the season hits and injuries happen.

However for the sake of discussion I'm sure the defense will add more wrinkles just as it did last year. The Patriots have been going a ton of big nickel for a couple years now to help themselves be more viable against situations where the run or pass isn't so obvious. We will see.

Good discussion btw

The Cards aren't the only Air Raid-heavy offense we're going to be facing this season, though. Many of its concepts have been finding their way in the NFL over the past decade, especially this offseason as Mahomes' success popularized it throughout the league, beating us in the SB with it. I wouldn't be surprised if more offenses use it to counter our dominant Wide 9 aligned fronts by horizontally and vertically spreading them out. All this talk of "unlimiting" Russell Wilson, opening up the Seahawks passing offense, acquiring Josh Gordon and perhaps even Antonio Brown down the road to pair with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf all sounds like an attempt to go that route.
[ Edited by RasSuar on Aug 21, 2020 at 9:33 AM ]
  • thl408
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Originally posted by RasSuar:
As per usual, the San Francisco 49ers will be facing their NFC West rivals, the Arizona Cardinals twice in the NFL regular season, including on Week 1 of this year's schedule. Led by former Texas Tech coach Kilff Kingsbury, whose Air Raid Offense was part of a revolutionary change in college offenses throughout the past decade, the Cards burned our defense twice, averaging 27 ppg by spreading out and compromising the interior of our staple wide 9 fronts.

Lately, there's been discussion about why the 49ers tried out a number of FA safeties, with Jonathan Cyprien and UDFA Evan Foster ultimately making the team. My hunch is because Saleh's planning on running variations of the 3-3-5 "Air Raid Killer" defensive set, characterized in the secondary by what are some call "Big Nickel" packages new DB coach Tony Oden use to run with DL coach Chris Kocurek back in their days with the Detroit Lions.



As you will see here, the defensive front concentrates its alignment up the middle to protect against the interior gapping vulnerabilities our Wide 9 is susceptible to, with both defensive ends line up over opposing tackles at the 4 Tech. The second tier will benefit from us fielding 3 fieldburners in Warner, Alexander, and Greenlaw who can range from sideline to sideline protecting the flats, plugging holes and dropping back in coverage with the best of them. And then finally, as the last line of defense, we have a secondary anchored up the middle by the "middle safety" who will be a hybrid S/LB type asked to play a variety of roles, much like Jimmie Ward alluded to in his last press conference.

What combination of Big Nickel, Tite front, and 3-3-5 do you think the 49ers are adopting to help combat ARI? All three are kind of independent of one another. There are counterarguments for each regarding them being used to specifically counter what ARI does.
- Big Nickel is used to defend 2WR sets, which ARI does not use a lot of. But they do use 2WR sets so this change I think is the most likely of the three.
- 3-3-5 personnel removes one of the better players whether it's Kinlaw or DJJ and puts Ford in a tough position as a run defender that may have to take on double team blocks. Perhaps Ford is not in the lineup in these situations, opting for a bigger DE that can better handle run blocks.
- Tite front puts two of the LBs into overhang positions which they aren't used to. Only Warner has experience doing this from his college days but he's now a MIKE and we'd want him staying at MIKE in a Tite front. So now you have Kwon and Greenlaw learning new reads and keys.

I think the least intrusive wrinkle would be using more Big Nickel personnel, but that's very situation dependent (when ARI uses 2 WRs). The other two changes (Tite, 3-3-5) are a big shift in what's been being taught and I have reservations about altering what is the foundation in the wide9 (4 man front, 3 in the box LBs). I won't rule anything out because the offseason is the time to add layers to the playbook, just want to point out that the Tite front and 3-3-5 personnel I consider as big-ish changes to the 49ers defense.
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  • thl408
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Originally posted by RasSuar:
Originally posted by Willisfn4life:
I don't know if thats the reason. As we only play the cards twice out of 16 games, so teams aren't going to sacrifice depth in other areas that they deem more important just to prepare for a team they play twice. I do think with the team able to dress 2 more players and a bigger practice squad the team is scouting everything. That includes getting some vets snaps with your playbook should you need some on speed dial once the season hits and injuries happen.

However for the sake of discussion I'm sure the defense will add more wrinkles just as it did last year. The Patriots have been going a ton of big nickel for a couple years now to help themselves be more viable against situations where the run or pass isn't so obvious. We will see.

Good discussion btw

The Cards aren't the only Air Raid-heavy offense we're going to be facing this season, though. Many of its concepts have been finding their way in the NFL over the past decade, especially this offseason as Mahomes' success popularized it throughout the league, beating us in the SB with it. I wouldn't be surprised if more offenses use it to counter our dominant Wide 9 aligned fronts by horizontally and vertically spreading them out. All this talk of "unlimiting" Russell Wilson, opening up the Seahawks passing offense, acquiring Josh Gordon and perhaps even Antonio Brown down the road to pair with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf all sounds like an attempt to go that route.

One big adjustment that the 49ers have made to help combat spread looks is moving to more split safety (middle field open) looks, which we saw more from them in 2019, when compared to 2017/18. This allowed them to stay true to their wide9 defensive front and zone heavy principles, while allowing them to have 3v2 and 4v3 situations when the offense spreads them out (3 defenders vs 2 receivers on one side, 4 defenders vs 3 receivers on the other side, rush 4).

The easiest conceptual way to defend all those quick throws from spread looks that ARI loved to call is to play straight man coverage. But the foundation of Air Raid is to adjust the playcall at the line to what best defeats the coverage they see pre-snap. So if ARI sees man coverage, they aren't likely to call a quick pass/bubble screen.
Originally posted by RasSuar:
Originally posted by Willisfn4life:
I don't know if thats the reason. As we only play the cards twice out of 16 games, so teams aren't going to sacrifice depth in other areas that they deem more important just to prepare for a team they play twice. I do think with the team able to dress 2 more players and a bigger practice squad the team is scouting everything. That includes getting some vets snaps with your playbook should you need some on speed dial once the season hits and injuries happen.

However for the sake of discussion I'm sure the defense will add more wrinkles just as it did last year. The Patriots have been going a ton of big nickel for a couple years now to help themselves be more viable against situations where the run or pass isn't so obvious. We will see.

Good discussion btw

The Cards aren't the only Air Raid-heavy offense we're going to be facing this season, though. Many of its concepts have been finding their way in the NFL over the past decade, especially this offseason as Mahomes' success popularized it throughout the league, beating us in the SB with it. I wouldn't be surprised if more offenses use it to counter our dominant Wide 9 aligned fronts by horizontally and vertically spreading them out. All this talk of "unlimiting" Russell Wilson, opening up the Seahawks passing offense, acquiring Josh Gordon and perhaps even Antonio Brown down the road to pair with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf all sounds like an attempt to go that route.

Yes many of the air raid principals are in the NFL but the niners transitioned more split coverage last year into their scheme to counterattack those heavy spread type schemes just like your seeing in college. Nick Saban does this alot. They also used three safety looks when they went into their dime packages.

I have no doubt there will be more wrinkles into their scheme (I agree about that) but the guys their bringing in don't speak much of a philosophical change to me. They were signed last minute after camp had already started. That should be telling enough. Cyprien is a typical box safety that is trash in pass defense and has been injured the last couple of seasons. Foster is another box safety type with speed that could be a nice special teams gem. No reason to overthink the moves. Like I said before, I just see these moves as due diligence type moves. Special teams, push for depth spots against guys like Marcell Harris, season speed dial guys that will have some schematic knowledge and not have to catch up on the fly. Kyle and Lynch love to create competition even in the second and third tier spots of the depth chart. They've have spoken about that quite a bit in the past about loving competition and have showed it each year. That's all those moves tell me imo.
[ Edited by Willisfn4life on Aug 21, 2020 at 12:01 PM ]

  • Giedi
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Originally posted by thl408:
Originally posted by RasSuar:
As per usual, the San Francisco 49ers will be facing their NFC West rivals, the Arizona Cardinals twice in the NFL regular season, including on Week 1 of this year's schedule. Led by former Texas Tech coach Kilff Kingsbury, whose Air Raid Offense was part of a revolutionary change in college offenses throughout the past decade, the Cards burned our defense twice, averaging 27 ppg by spreading out and compromising the interior of our staple wide 9 fronts.

Lately, there's been discussion about why the 49ers tried out a number of FA safeties, with Jonathan Cyprien and UDFA Evan Foster ultimately making the team. My hunch is because Saleh's planning on running variations of the 3-3-5 "Air Raid Killer" defensive set, characterized in the secondary by what are some call "Big Nickel" packages new DB coach Tony Oden use to run with DL coach Chris Kocurek back in their days with the Detroit Lions.



As you will see here, the defensive front concentrates its alignment up the middle to protect against the interior gapping vulnerabilities our Wide 9 is susceptible to, with both defensive ends line up over opposing tackles at the 4 Tech. The second tier will benefit from us fielding 3 fieldburners in Warner, Alexander, and Greenlaw who can range from sideline to sideline protecting the flats, plugging holes and dropping back in coverage with the best of them. And then finally, as the last line of defense, we have a secondary anchored up the middle by the "middle safety" who will be a hybrid S/LB type asked to play a variety of roles, much like Jimmie Ward alluded to in his last press conference.

What combination of Big Nickel, Tite front, and 3-3-5 do you think the 49ers are adopting to help combat ARI? All three are kind of independent of one another. There are counterarguments for each regarding them being used to specifically counter what ARI does.
- Big Nickel is used to defend 2WR sets, which ARI does not use a lot of. But they do use 2WR sets so this change I think is the most likely of the three.
- 3-3-5 personnel removes one of the better players whether it's Kinlaw or DJJ and puts Ford in a tough position as a run defender that may have to take on double team blocks. Perhaps Ford is not in the lineup in these situations, opting for a bigger DE that can better handle run blocks.
- Tite front puts two of the LBs into overhang positions which they aren't used to. Only Warner has experience doing this from his college days but he's now a MIKE and we'd want him staying at MIKE in a Tite front. So now you have Kwon and Greenlaw learning new reads and keys.

I think the least intrusive wrinkle would be using more Big Nickel personnel, but that's very situation dependent (when ARI uses 2 WRs). The other two changes (Tite, 3-3-5) are a big shift in what's been being taught and I have reservations about altering what is the foundation in the wide9 (4 man front, 3 in the box LBs). I won't rule anything out because the offseason is the time to add layers to the playbook, just want to point out that the Tite front and 3-3-5 personnel I consider as big-ish changes to the 49ers defense.

Fantastic discussion!
  • thl408
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Originally posted by Willisfn4life:
Yes many of the air raid principals are in the NFL but the niners transitioned more split coverage last year into their scheme to counterattack those heavy spread type schemes just like your seeing in college. Nick Saban does this alot. They also used three safety looks when they went into their dime packages.

I have no doubt there will be more wrinkles into their scheme (I agree about that) but the guys their bringing in don't speak much of a philosophical change to me. They were signed last minute after camp had already started. That should be telling enough. Cyprien is a typical box safety that is trash in pass defense and has been injured the last couple of seasons. Foster is another box safety type with speed that could be a nice special teams gem. No reason to overthink the moves. Like I said before, I just see these moves as due diligence type moves. Special teams, push for depth spots against guys like Marcell Harris, season speed dial guys that will have some schematic knowledge and not have to catch up on the fly. That's all those moves tell me imo.

Agreed about not trying to read too much into the recent signings (Cyprien, Foster). If the 49ers were serious about making these types of changes, they wouldn't be signing these guys as afterthought street free agents. These signings would have happened much earlier in free agency to make sure they had the players they wanted to execute these scheme changes.

Saleh wants his players to play fast so he wants to keep assignments simple. This is one reason they moved to wide9. They saw that their five man front 4-3 Under was not being used enough in 2018 to warrant continuing to practice it. So they "married" (term Saleh used) what they did in Nickel (4 man front) to base. And now we have wide9 in nickel and base. Spending precious practice time to implement 3 man fronts and teaching LBs to read and react as overhang defenders is an ambitious task. I think they are more likely to retain their defensive principles (4 man front, zone) and mix up their coverages than they are to basically overhaul their DL front and LBs for two matchups a season. If ARI truly becomes a contender, then perhaps they entertain bigger changes.

I know JWard spoke about changes to his assignments but I think that's very specific to him and his ability to play deep safety and cover the slot.
Originally posted by thl408:
Agreed about not trying to read too much into the recent signings (Cyprien, Foster). If the 49ers were serious about making these types of changes, they wouldn't be signing these guys as afterthought street free agents. These signings would have happened much earlier in free agency to make sure they had the players they wanted to execute these scheme changes.

Saleh wants his players to play fast so he wants to keep assignments simple. This is one reason they moved to wide9. They saw that their five man front 4-3 Under was not being used enough in 2018 to warrant continuing to practice it. So they "married" (term Saleh used) what they did in Nickel (4 man front) to base. And now we have wide9 in nickel and base. Spending precious practice time to implement 3 man fronts and teaching LBs to read and react as overhang defenders is an ambitious task. I think they are more likely to retain their defensive principles (4 man front, zone) and mix up their coverages than they are to basically overhaul their DL front and LBs for two matchups a season. If ARI truly becomes a contender, then perhaps they entertain bigger changes.

I know JWard spoke about changes to his assignments but I think that's very specific to him and his ability to play deep safety and cover the slot.


Yep agree wholeheartedly with everything. I could see them using more of their dime packages where they move Jimmie into the slot as a way to get Moore on the field for some more snaps. Like we saw in the super bowl.
Like myself and thl pointed out on posts 10 and 12 about the new safety additions. These additions look to be more about creating competition and scouting than anything. No reason to overthink them. From Saleh's words...

Saleh said the addition of Cyprien is no reflection on the returning players. But teams have the added luxury this season of being able to carry six veteran players on their practice squads.

"He's been a productive player," Saleh said. "He knows our system. He's in great shape. He moves very well. And the expectation for him is to come out and compete.

"You're never going to restrict roster spots with numbers, but he's a talented football player and his ability to come in and compete and push guys, you can never have too many good football players. And he's a good football player."

(https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/49ers/johnathan-cyprien-makes-pick-second-practice-adds-49ers-competition?amp&__twitter_impression=true)
[ Edited by Willisfn4life on Aug 21, 2020 at 12:56 PM ]
Makes no sense to not play any edge rushers when we have N. Boss and Ford.
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