No. 1: Rush Yards Against
Without question, the No. 1 problem the 49ers encountered last year was stopping the run.
In a historically bad year for San Francisco’s defense, defending opponents’ running games proved to be a major problem for then-coordinator Jim O’Neil, certainly leading to the overall front-office changes the team went through early in 2017.
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We know the rankings — dead last in the NFL with an average of 4.8 yards on the ground per play. Simply put, teams could hand the ball off each and every time, knowing full well the Niners couldn’t stop ball carriers on the ground.
Things are different in 2017, though.
It’s not a surprise to see this year’s crop better against the run, switching to a 4-3 defense putting more-talented defenders up along the line of scrimmage. Factor in another first-round draft pick, Solomon Thomas, and the Niners are allowing only 3.4 yards per rush this season.
That’s fifth best in the NFL.
Granted, opponents are challenging the 49ers secondary a lot more this season through the air. So far, the differential between running plays and passing plays is plus-17 in favor of the pass, whereas last year was minus-27, respectively.
Regardless, it’s nice to know San Francisco has somewhat addressed one of its key issues from last year.
And while the Niners will have their hands full with Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott in Week 7, the defense should get a nice boost with the return of linebacker Reuben Foster (ankle), who should help bolster the defense’s run-stopping abilities even more.