49ers must abandon Wide-9 defensive alignment now

49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek implemented the Wide-9 defensive alignment in 2019, but it would be wise to revert to a standard deployment.

One of the subtle but significant changes the San Francisco 49ers experienced when naming Kris Kocurek their defensive line coach in 2019 was to shift how they played their defensive line.

Like any defensive scheme, or scheme within a scheme, there are pros and cons. And the Wide-9 defensive-line alignment Kocurek implemented certainly had its merits, especially that year when the Niners were featuring one of the most stacked defensive lines in the NFL, coupled with defensive backs and linebackers who’d excel in coverage.

Two years later, though, the context has changed. A lot. And San Francisco would be wise to use much less of the Wide-9 base formation, or potentially get rid of it altogether.

 

Why Wide-9 initially worked for the 49ers in 2019

Without diving too deep into the Xs and Os of a Wide-9 alignment and boring you, this formation calls for extremely athletic defensive ends to line up well enough away from opposing tackles, which helps eliminate guards from doubling with tackles on opposing pass-rushers. The intent is to give outside pass-rushers more one-on-one matchups, especially against less-athletic tackles, where speed and violence are the name of the game.

This worked in 2019 with EDGEs Nick Bosa and Dee Ford on the field regularly, as both possess the necessary speed to make the scheme thrive.

Yet it also calls on excellent pass-coverage skills from the remaining four cover players, especially cornerbacks, who have to be on point because the pass rush typically takes longer to get to the quarterback. On top of that, an interior pass rush also has to exist to force more of those outside one-on-one matchups.

The 49ers had that in 2019 with Bosa and Ford, while defensive tackles DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead provided much of the interior pressure. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon also added generally safe coverage abilities, too.

Buckner, Sherman and Witherspoon are no longer with the team, though. So, many of the elements that allowed the Niners to succeed with the Wide-9 alignment aren’t in play any longer.

And San Francisco’s Week 3 loss to the Green Bay Packers showed a clear indication why Kocurek and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans need to rely on this approach much less.

 

49ers loss to Packers is a case study why Wide-9 isn’t working

Ideally, a Wide-9 pass rush is built for quarterbacks who take longer than 2.5 seconds to deliver the ball. According to Next Gen Stats, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgersaverage pass time in Week 3 was 2.38 seconds.

Ball snapped, bang.

This helps explain why the 49ers registered only one sack during the game despite Green Bay playing a third-string left tackle and having a makeshift offensive line in place. Quarterbacks have to be decisive and accurate, yes. In Rodgers’ case, he’s both. Easily.

Yet there’s another key piece of evidence why the Wide-9 can actually do more harm than good, specifically from NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger, who showed how Bosa was regularly chip-blocked on his outside pass-rushes, including this play by Packers tight end Robert Tonyan.

One simple chip and Bosa is effectively taken out of the play.

This wouldn’t be so easy if Bosa was aligned closer to the left tackle. And if Ryans called for more stunts, or at least both Bosa and Ford trying to rush through the B-gap between the tackle and guard, there would be far more variety from the Niners’ defensive vantage point.

 

Another disadvantage 49ers are having with Wide-9

One of the early concerns about the Wide-9 back in 2019 was the fact it would create more interior rush lanes for opposing running backs to use. This was fully exposed in Week 1 against the Detroit Lions when San Francisco surrendered an average of 4.8 yards per carry, many of which came in between the tackles.

A healthy defensive tackle, Javon Kinlaw, helped negate those interior rush attempts to a certain extent in Weeks 2 and 3. To date, though, Kinlaw hasn’t offered much more in the pass-rush department, thereby eliminating the kind of impact Buckner had in 2019.

More problematic, however, is the fact the increased gaps in the 49ers D-line mean linebackers like Fred Warner have to cheat towards the line of scrimmage to better guard against the run. On play fakes, this can make players like Warner more susceptible to pass attempts over the middle of the field, forcing linebackers to cover more ground in response.

For someone like Warner, known for his excellent pass coverage, eliminating the need for him to cheat closer to the line of scrimmage would have a lot of merits.

Additionally, the Niners’ current crop of cornerbacks isn’t equipped enough to cover players over 2.5 seconds, almost the time needed for a successful Wide-9 pass rush to get home in the best of circumstances.

Until they do, it’s probably best for San Francisco to revert back to its standard 4-3 D-line look.