49ers defense makes slowing QB runs ‘big focus.’ Why it matters for FitzMagic
The 49ers defense is broken and not playing at the level it reached during the Super Bowl run in 2019. But she carried her weight in the first four games of 2020.
After San Francisco battled Sambacks for three consecutive weeks - Sam Darnold, Daniel Jones and Carson Wentz - San Francisco took third place in the NFL for both opponents (17.8 points per game) and mileage (295) which is only 14 yards more last season.
But the topic that emerged in 2019 will become even more common in 2020. The 49ers are struggling to keep quarterbacks from playing with their legs, whether they're scripted or improvised.
In week 1, it was Kyler Murray's team-leading 91 rushing yards and a touchdown that proved critical with a four point loss. Jones '49 yards were largely inconsequential in San Francisco's Week 2 blowout, but he led the Giants in game one when Saquon Barkley was sidelined with a knee injury at the end of the season.
Last week against the Eagles, Wentz extended games with his legs throughout the game, scoring a touchdown on a scheduled run in the first quarter of the 25:20 loss. His 37 yards was the second after running back Miles Sanders in '46.
And the numbers match the eye test. The 49ers have allowed 205 quarterbacks rushing yards, by far the most in the NFL.
The Chiefs are second with 139 meters. In fact, San Francisco has allowed almost as many quarterback rushing yards as there are running backs (226, fourth-best in the NFL in week 5).
"There was a lot of focus on that and I think we will improve in that regard," General Manager John Lynch said on KNBR radio on Wednesday.
Why Worry About FitzMagic?
It might sound amusing to think that when quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick comes to Santa Clara on Sunday there is a focus to keep quarterbacks from winning with their legs. But the 37-year-old is second on the team with 115 yards on the ground in four games after leading the team in 2019 with 246 rushing yards. This is not a typo. The dolphins' situation last year was so bad.
Fitzpatrick has had quick touchdowns in the last two games. The 49ers plan to see more of the same Sunday due to their problems defending elusive signal callers.
“We probably need to be a little better at the discipline of our rush lanes. If you don't want to hit people, keep the quarterback in your pocket, ”Lynch said. "Fitzpatrick ... is still incredibly good at moving and really good at getting out of the pocket and making games so that will be a focus too. You don't stop attacking, you just have to be very aware that you are stay in your onslaught and everyone is married in their approach. "
The 49ers try to make this adjustment with mostly backups on the defensive end. Nick Bosa (torn ACL) is ready for the season while Dee Ford will miss at least the next three games with a significant back issue. That leaves the team leader in Sacks, Kerry Hyder, Arik Armstead and Dion Jordan, slowing quarterbacks at the edges. The team also promoted Alex Barrett from the training team this week to make up for Ezekiel Ansah's loss for the season with a biceps tear.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh mentioned this week that there are two ways his defensive targets are trained to defend the read zone. So Wentz scored his touchdown. A defensive end that is normally not blocked in play can crash running back, hoping the linebacker can replace it in its gap and "scratch" it if the quarterback holds the ball. Or the defensive end can "surf" and react to whether the quarterback passes the ball or not.
"With Fitzpatrick, he's a lot quicker than people think," said Saleh. "He's going to stash it. I mean, he had a QB tie last week for an 11-yarder for a touchdown. So we're aware of his running ability which is unlike any other team. We just have to make sure we're great Doing work to communicate and to be aware of one's abilities. "
49ers defense ready for runs
The 49ers schema and staffing decisions could also play a role. Defensive coach Kris Kocurek insists that he will be on the field as quickly as possible, which can lead to criminal offenses that exploit open tracks. Additionally, the 49ers are using larger edge rushers than in previous seasons when they ran a 3-4 scheme with 250 to 260 pound external linebackers patrolling the edge.
Hyder, Armstead and Jordan weigh 275, 290 and 285 pounds, respectively, and don't move in space as well as external linebackers.
Surely the 49ers will train against the scheduled runs and have a better plan than for Wentz's touchdown when Jordan crashed on the fake and followed up on the rewind while there was no linebacker to fill the quarterbacks career. The key will be to limit the off-schedule runs, which was a Bugaboo for San Francisco on third downs.
“Keep being aggressive,” said Armstead, “but practice and plan and know where the quarterback likes to escape and how to escape. ... every quarterback is a little bit different, but that comes with studying movies and going out and practicing and playing and realizing who you're playing against. "
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