The move that may have saved the 49ers season

San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk (44) walks off the field after a 26-23 win over the Cincinnati Bengals during an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Emilee Chinn)

Through the first 13 weeks of the 2021 season, the San Francisco 49ers have looked like two separate teams.

After the first six games of the year, the 49ers sat with a 2-4 record, and it looked as though this might be another lost season. However, since losing to the Colts in a downpour San Francisco has turned their season around, going 5-2 over the next seven weeks.

What changed?

Many will likely point to Deebo Samuel’s use in the running game or how the offense began to dominate time of possession. Instead, it may have been a tweak on the defensive side of the ball that’s made the difference.

After veteran pass rusher Dee Ford was lost for the season with a back injury following the loss to the Colts, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and his staff decided to shuffle the defensive line.

Samson Ebukam, a free agent acquisition from the Los Angeles Rams, was moved into the starting lineup at defensive end. Arik Armstead was moved inside to defensive tackle, and Arden Key began to be used as an inside pass rusher in San Francisco’s nickel and dime packages.

The move of Ebukam into the starting lineup did two things for San Francisco’s defense: It allowed Armstead to play inside full time, which is where he’s been at his best, and it improved their containment of the quarterback.

Until this season, Ebukam had split his time between linebacker and pass rusher while with Los Angeles. This has resulted in Ebukam being more of a read and react pass rusher, often getting good push against the opposing tackle, and then using the techniques that he learned as a linebacker to shed the blocker and chase down the quarterback.

While Ebukam’s individual numbers don’t jump out at you, the impact of his move into the starting lineup is impressive.

Over the first six weeks of the season, San Francisco was able to manage only 12 sacks and 26 quarterback hits. During this time, Nick Bosa was somewhat on an island. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year accounted for half of those quarterback hits.

The tweaks made by Ryans has resulted in those hits being spread around as Ebukam, Armstead and Key have all seen their productivity increase. In the last seven weeks, starting with the victory in Chicago, San Francisco’s defense has recorded 21 sacks and 37 quarterback hits. Nearly one per game on average. While Bosa’s sack productivity has remained consistent, his percentage of quarterback hits has dropped to 41 percent as his teammates have taken advantage of the focus on him.

As the quarterback hits and sacks have increased, the 49ers defense has begun to force more turnovers and the points allowed has decreased.

Over the last seven weeks, San Francisco’s defense has forced 10 turnovers and allowed 21.7 points per game. That’s more than twice as many turnovers and over three points per game fewer than throughout the first six. 

The philosophy of the 49ers under the current regime has been to build the defense from the front back. It’s certainly paying off this year.

This article has 17 Comments

  1. Very interesting article and great insight into the improvement in the defense. Armstead should always play inside but way too often he isn’t. Good to hear Ebukam is doing well and he should get better with more experience in his new position.

  2. Great article. I would also add Indy was also the low point for Rush yards allowed. JT ran all over us. Since then we have held opposing RBs in check. The arrow is pointing up on the D . The soft spot are our corners but EMan is should be back week 17 just in time for the playoffs.

  3. At the end of the year we can analyze if Saleh did more with less with this defense in 2020 or Ryan’s in 2021?

  4. Heads up for Jack:
    If you allow the traitor 1.6 Patriot to keep posting, thus normalizing an insurrection against our democracy, I will cancel my PD subscription, and tell the newspaper it’s because of you.

    1. Good luck with that Chet. Hammer has stated politically provocative screen names are a non- issue here.

      You or I could post under something like “jailed 1.6 insurrectionist”, but don’t play those stupid passive aggressive games, do we?

    2. No but I’ll vote with my wallet. Maybe there will be consequences to Jack, maybe not. It’s up to him and his employer.

      1. Chet we all hope you leave. We want to talk sports not politics. Go argue with people on FoxNews.

        Once you end your sub to PD I will just make another fake account and pay for you loss. It’s really not that much money.

        Besides PD is in Santa Rosa so…

        1. James, Chet is asking for less politics here, which Hammer has turned a blind eye to.

          Every time someone with a politically motivated screen name posts here it makes a mockery of your no politics edict. If you don’t agree with that, you yourself are being just as political.

          1. Why don’t you ever mention this one: First Escort Meelaneeah??

            Why doesn’t this one bother you??

            1. Because unlike others I’m not bothered by political talk here. As anyone who has followed my postings over the last dozen or so years here knows well.

              But if the mods say no politics, that should include political handles. All of them. Why Hammer allows them, IDK. That’s what bothers me.

    1. I will choose not to support my local newspaper financially if it condones this kind of inaction by its employee. That’s not being a Karen, it’s choosing where I spend my money.

        1. Sam, I have confusion why you are calling Chet – Karen. Also I most appreciate your Avatar. I like 49ers and they are named after the goldminers from century of the past 1800s. It is kismet that I am big fan because I am also Gold Digger.

      1. We all get to make choices and you’ve stated yours if you really mean it and if you do, it was nice briefly knowing you.

  5. The 49ers seem virtually locked into the 6th seed at this point. It can change but not likely. The Rams similarly will take the Wild Card. I wonder if we see Trey Lance starting the last game of the year and many of the starters resting.

    1. Idk about that lock. A loss or two in the final 4, combined with any of the 6-7 pack winning out m, Niners could easily drop to 7 or out completely. Trey only plays if there is no possibility of seeding movement, which I’m kinda doubting, that last weekend.

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