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.
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.