In this week’s installment of 49ers playbook, we look at the good and the bad of the 49ers run defense in defending the outside zone in Week 7.
Through six games, the 49ers run defense was surrendering 3.42 yards per carry and was efficient at stopping the run.
Against the Cowboys in week seven, the 49ers surrendered 6.16 yards per carry to the Cowboys running game.
It’s tough to nail down exactly why the run defense took a step back in this game, but it’s no coincidence playing without Arik Armstead and the release of NaVorro Bowman is having a huge impact.
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Reuben Foster’s departure in Week 1 didn’t hamper the run defense at all, and his return this past weekend certainly didn’t help lift a struggling defense, but it gave reason to believe that this defense can improve in the remaining nine games.
So what went wrong? First the, bad.
Just like the 49ers, the staple running play of the Cowboys offense is the outside or wide zone. The Cowboys use this play to great effect with Ezekiel Elliott as the primary running back. The outside or wide zone is characterized by the movement of the offensive line.
Whereas the inside zone is more of an upfield movement by the offensive line, in the outside or wide zone, the offensive line takes more of a lateral movement toward the sideline and either pins the defenders inside (using the “rip” technique) or runs them to the side (using the “run” technique) line.
This creates three separate reads for the running back: He can either “bounce” outside the pinned in edge defender and first interior defender to the play side, “bang” between the outside edge defender and the first interior defender, or “bend” it up the middle if both the edge and first interior defender are kicked out.
In the first quarter, the Cowboys picked up 14 yards on the outside zone by taking advantage of the weaker talent to the backside and scheming against the 49ers front side run strength.
At the snap, the 49ers run defense clogs the front side of the play with safety Jaquaski Tartt (No. 29) setting the edge and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner getting penetration.
The 49ers clearly want to force all runs to the inside where the strength of the defense is.
However, as the play develops, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell (No. 90) is easily handled by Cowboy’s center Zach Martin (No. 70), and he never establishes an anchor for the interior of the defense, allowing Elliott (No. 21) to read the backside blocks and hit the cutback.
On the backside of the 49ers defense, linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong (No. 54) is waiting for the “bend” read cutback. Since Mitchell doesn’t force the cutback, Armstrong gets in the block of guard La’el Collins (No. 71) by being to Collins’ outside and gets sealed off.
Elliott forces Jimmie Ward (No. 25) to miss to the tackle, and he’s eventually stopped at the 49ers’ 6-yard line setting up their first scoring drive of the game.
The 49ers will no doubt find the right combination of talent to fit the scheme, but one player in particular may just be the one they are looking for to anchor the middle of the defensive line.
In the second quarter, the Cowboys are again looking to take advantage of that backside run defense by again running the outside zone and looking for the cut back.
This time, the 49ers have inserted sixth-round pick defensive tackle D.J. Jones (No. 93) into the middle of the line as the 1-technique tackle.
Jones has been a quietly underrated defender for the middle of the defensive line the past several weeks and should get the nod over Mitchell, as the franchise’s long-term solution.
At the snap, Foster (No. 56) makes center Zach Martin miss his block, and Foster goes right around him into the cutback lane.
The 49ers again clog the front side of the play, forcing Elliott to bend back up the middle.
The positioning of the linebackers behind the defensive line alters the blocking scheme of the Cowboys, enabling the defensive line to eat the blockers, keeping the linebackers clean.
This time around, instead of Mitchell, Jones anchors the middle of the defense and squeezes his gap with Armstrong, forcing Elliott to cutback right into Foster.
Foster gives Elliott a nice pop behind the line of scrimmage for a one-yard loss.
This play is the perfect example of how the defense has worked in tandem to as a successful unit to stop the run. It is also why they should continue make improvement as the season progresses despite the poor performance displayed last Sunday.
However the rest of the season plays out, this front seven is the key to keeping these games close and keeping the offense on schedule.