49ers can mitigate injury loss of Dre Greenlaw by doing this
With Dre Greenlaw being out for anywhere between four and eight weeks following groin surgery, Niner Noise breaks down how the 49ers can mitigate his loss.
Following his pick-six interception, linebacker Dre Greenlaw quietly left the San Francisco 49ers‘ Week 1 win over the Detroit Lions with a groin injury.
And although head coach Kyle Shanahan had originally said they didn’t expect the injury to be serious, with reports Greenlaw is undergoing groin surgery and will be out between four and eight weeks, that’s clearly no longer the case.
Thankfully, it’s not a season-ending injury. But for the Niners, it’s a big blow on multiple levels.
For starters, no matter what you thought of Greenlaw, he was at worst an above-average starter who will no longer be penciled in the lineup. Though Azeez Al-Shaair, the starting SAM linebacker and Greenlaw’s replacement, played an incredible game in Week 1, losing Greenlaw still hurts.
While that’s the most obvious issue, another equally important issue is that now that Al-Shaair is the starting WILL linebacker, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles will be pressed into starting action. The 49ers last year, per Football Outsiders, were in a base formation 31 percent of the time, while they went into nickel (when the SAM linebacker comes off the field) 67 percent of the time.
Formations are opponent-dependent, but that’s 31 percent of snaps, on average, San Francisco has to figure out how to deal with.
The 49ers’ Week 2 opponent, the Philadephia Eagles, used two-tight end sets quite a lot, which in turn, means the Niners will be in base formation for much of the game.
That puts a lot of pressure on Flannigan-Fowles to perform.
While there’s no reason to doubt DFF as of now, a team’s fourth linebacker is likely going to have some problems. Defenses, in particular, can be easily gashed if even one aspect is the “weak link,” as seen during Week 1 when Lions quarterback Jared Goff picked on cornerback Dontae Johnson all the way down the field twice.
But there is another solution, one that can provide the Niners a higher floor in base situations and even provide more flexibility and upside.
49ers should use 3-safety formations with Dre Greenlaw out
During the preseason, one of the pleasant surprises was the play of rookie fifth-round pick Talanoa Hufanga, both during the games and training camp practices. He showed strong instincts and exceptional pursuit, and the team trusted his coverage abilities enough to place him back as a single-high safety on occasion.
Instead of playing Flannigan-Fowles in situations that typically call for a base 4-3 defense (four down linemen, three linebackers), the 49ers could run a 4-2-5, where the fifth secondary player would be Hufanga, the safety.
These types of sets, also known as big nickels, offer a viable and beneficial alternative.
For starters, Hufanga has the size and strength to play in the box, which takes away the biggest concern when going to a nickel look. Instead of getting gashed in the run game because there aren’t enough run defenders on the field, Hufanga would be able to, at worst, match what Flannigan-Fowles does for San Francisco.
But the benefit of adding Hufanga is first his ability. Hufanga, as a safety, has naturally better coverage abilities. The 49ers wouldn’t be at as much of a risk when the Eagles try to pass out of run formations to take advantage of the defense; in fact, that could throw a massive wrench in the Eagles’ plan. Hufanga is a strong blitzer, another aspect defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans could take advantage of.
Finally, the Niners would be able to be much more varied and complex in their coverage schemes. All three safeties on the field in this hypothetical situation are players they’re comfortable leaving up in single-high. That means the level of rotations, disguises, stunts and bluffs San Francisco can pull out in coverage grows exponentially.
Against a young quarterback like the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts, that can help throw his balance.
While losing a player like Greenlaw is never a good thing for the 49ers, they can best handle this situation using a different look with Hufanga in the mix.