49ers defense likely winds up blitzing a lot in 2021

Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers sacks Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers sacks Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

The 49ers weren’t a blitz-happy team between 2017 and 2019, but that changed because of injuries in 2020. And the blitz might be a factor again in 2021.

From 2017 through 2019, former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh wasn’t known for dialing up a lot of blitz packages.

Saleh’s Seattle Seahawks-like Cover 3, zone-style defense relied more on a four-man pass rush with linebackers and defensive backs playing deep in order to prevent big plays from getting behind the second and third levels.

The first two years didn’t exactly generate a lot of success. Why? For starters, Saleh was still learning on the job as a first-run coordinator. And the Niners also didn’t boast a potent four-man pass rush.

That all changed in 2019, though, with the offseason trade for EDGE Dee Ford and the subsequent first-round NFL Draft addition of EDGE Nick Bosa, whose nine sacks that year would propel him to Defensive Rookie of the Year.

In total, the 2019 49ers had 48 sacks, tied for fifth most in the NFL.

Coincidentally, the four-man pass rush that season equated to Saleh continuing his relatively low percentage of blitzing. Yet injuries to Bosa and Ford early in 2020, combined with other wide-sweeping injuries and a general lack of pass-rushing speed, forced Saleh to adjust.

One of the ways he did so was to blitz more often, and the numbers back it up:

  • 2017 blitz percentage: 22.4 percent (20th)
  • 2018 blitz percentage: 20.4 percent (22nd)
  • 2019 blitz percentage: 20.9 percent (29th)
  • 2020 blitz percentage: 33.6 percent (10th)

Saleh’s ability to adjust last year while still being able to maintain a top-five yardage defense were prime reasons why he landed a head-coaching gig with the New York Jets this offseason. With the pass rush waning, the Niners employed more man-coverage looks while increasing the number of blitz packages.

With Saleh gone and first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans taking over, there’s evidence San Francisco will stick to the idea of blitzing more than Saleh did his first three years.

49ers’ four-man pass rush might not be as potent in 2021

Bosa is coming back from an ACL tear. Ford’s status with a back injury remains completely unclear heading towards Week 1. And while the 49ers bolstered their pass rush by signing EDGE Samson Ebukam during the offseason, he’s primarily been little more than a situational pass-rusher over his four-year career to date.

It’s possible, perhaps likely the Niners’ 2021 pass-rushing efforts don’t come anywhere close to what those lofty 2019 numbers were, thereby allowing opposing quarterbacks to target their receivers sitting down in soft spots within zone coverage while not having to worry as much about facing pressure within the pocket.

If Ford returns this year, or if Ebukam winds up having a breakout season, maybe that takes pressure off Ryans from having to rely more on blitzing.

Yet some of San Francisco’s offseason moves suggest the team is willing to employ more blitzes in 2021 while hoping its defensive backs can maintain prowess in man coverage.

For starters, the 49ers made it a priority to re-sign cornerback Jason Verrett, who is more of a man-cover player. Richard Sherman, who made his mark as a zone cornerback, remains unsigned. On top of that, the Niners drafted two cornerbacks, Michigan’s Ambry Thomas and Oregon’s Deommodore Lenoir, who both excelled in man coverage during their collegiate days. While there’s no immediate correlation between man coverage and blitzing, generally speaking, it’s easier for a blitzed quarterback to target a hot-route receiver going up against zone coverage than it is against man.

Yet the biggest indicator could be San Francisco’s fifth-round pick, USC safety Talanoa Hufanga, who is equal parts cover guy and extra pass-rusher. While Hufanga’s four interceptions over six games for the Trojans last year were impressive, it’s almost more crucial to point out his 6.5 combined sacks over the last two seasons.

Related Story: 3 things to expect from Talanoa Hufanga in 2021

The 49ers could end up using him in this sort of fashion.

Ryans might not rely as much on the blitz as Saleh did in 2020, mainly because Saleh had to. If anything, offseason additions of speed rushers suggest the Niners won’t be anywhere near as slow up front.

But it’s still totally possible Ryans continues a relatively recent tradition of using blitz packages more than San Francisco did between 2017 and 2019.

At least until a four-man pass rush generates the same kind of pressure it enjoyed during the 49ers’ Super Bowl run.

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