The 49ers defensive line is the entire reason they are in the playoffs. Week after week they have been able to get after the opposing quarterbacks with high-quality pressures using a variety of fronts and stunts after wrecking opposing offensive lines on early downs in the run game.
Combined with a second-level linebacker unit, the 49ers front stands in the way of sending the Packers to their 3rd straight NFC Championship game. If the Packers can overcome them, and they did for the most part in the Week 3 game, then they should be able to outlast San Francisco.
The 49ers defensive line is not the same as the 2019 defensive line that arguably was their best unit on the team. That season, the 49ers went into the playoffs with a healthy Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner. Since then, only Bosa and Armstead are remaining from that 2019 Super Bowl team.
Dee Ford has not played since Week 7 and in mid-December the 49ers finally shut him down. DeForsest Buckner is in his second year with the Colts. The 49ers’ only notable addition in the offseason to the group was Samson Ebukam who had a slow start but has been a big contributor the last few weeks.
In the interior also resides D.J. Jones, who more than likely played himself into a new contract with the 49ers or with some other team but he has an incredible season as the full-time starter in the interior.
The depth features defensive end Charles Omenihu who came over mid-season at the trade deadline and has had 6.5 sacks since then, Arden Key, Jordan Willis, Kentavius Street, and Kevin Givens. Where the 49ers lack in a solid front four, they make up within very valuable depth and their defensive line is as good as any.
Despite all of this talent and depth behind Bosa and Armstead, the Packers only surrendered six total pressures (one sack and five hurries) on 38 pass-blocking snaps from the offensive line thanks to an effective quick passing game and a running game that went for 100 yards and one touchdown.
49ers run defense
Since that game, they’ve only allowed 100 or more rushing yards in four games. And they do it largely by wrecking the interior offensive line with their defensive tackles and linebackers.
Here, the Cowboys are running “duo” (2 double team blocks at the point of attack) to create extra gaps and wash defenders out with the read by the running back. If the middle linebacker fills his run fit to the A-gap, then the running back will bounce it outside. If the middle linebacker bounces outside, the running back will take it up the middle behind his blockers.
Linebacker Fred Warner (No. 54) slow plays the run as defensive lineman Kevin Givens (No. 90) takes on the center/right guard double team at the point of attack. Ezekiel Elliott bounces outside and Warner scrapes over the top while Givens sheds the blocker aside where they both combine to stop the run for no gain. Warner is careful not to fit the run too aggressively for concern that the runner might bounce out and they’d have no chance to stop him.
The 49ers run defense has been effective at stopping the run, especially the last game versus Dallas in the wildcard round.
Third down and obvious passing situations
DeMeco Ryans, 49ers defensive coordinator, is not a blitz-heavy coordinator, saving his best well-timed blitzes for key high leverage situations for the defense. Instead, on third and long, his preferred method of getting after the quarterback is through the use of overloaded fronts that create 1-on-1 matchups for his defensive line.
Usually, they’ll line up Nick Bosa as the single-side defensive end where he can rush 1-on-1 versus opposing tackles. Sometimes, they will line him up in the middle of the three defensive linemen overloaded side and run stunts to confuse the offensive line and put them in conflict on their pass blocking assignments. In their first sack of the Rams game in Week 18, Matt Stafford hesitates when he’s that stunt from the overloaded front as defenders cross the line of scrimmage and blockers can’t track their assignments.
Later in the game, the defensive line was able to overload the left side of the Rams offensive line, causing confusion about who to block and allowing penetration into the backfield by Arik Armstead was who lined up in the middle of the overloaded front.
3rd down stunts
One way the 49ers have countered teams chipping Nick Bosa in third-down passing situations is to run stunts from the interior or run him inside on a stunt and change the blocking assignments. Offensive linemen are taught to look for work with no one to block. They’ll typically slide and help their teammate block the nearest threat. Against Dallas, this left a void in the line for Bosa to stunt inside and chase down Dak Prescott for the sack.
3rd down blitzes
When the 49ers do blitz, it’s strategic and well-timed. They run what’s considered a “2-under 3-deep” fire zone pressure or overload blitz that’s designed to overload the running back and force the quarterback into a quicker than normal throw.
On their fire zone, a linebacker drops underneath and is looking for anything shallow across to the middle of the field, with another defender playing in the seam/curl/flat zone looking for anything out to the flat or up the seam.
The blitz package sends rushers to overload the formation’s weak side to keep the running back in to block, freeing up one rusher to get to the quarterback. The defensive line will slant away from the blitz to attract the blockers.
How the Packers might counter the 49ers aggressive defensive line and blitz packages
Quick passing game
The most effective way the Packers have to beat the blitz and aggressive pass rushers is through running their quick passing game and relying on Rodgers’ quick release and arm talent.
In the traditional quick passing game, we can probably expect to see a heavy dose of “dragon” slant/flat concepts and “lion” double slant concepts. Several throws versus the Rams illustrate this point.
Rodgers was able to beat the Rams coverage with quick, decisive, and on-time throws to Devante Adams and Randall Cobb on both of these concepts. Both receivers ran quick slants and stick routes that were thrown against tight coverage and in particular Adams versus Jalen Ramsey.
Another effective concept got the Packers several yards in a mid-season game when Adams and Allen Lazard were placed on the covid list and unable to play. In Week 8, the play calling adjusted to account for less experienced receivers outside of Cobb and was more clustered to throws within five yards of the line of scrimmage. And it kept the Packers on schedule and long touchdown drives.
One play they repeatedly came back to, by my count six times over the course of the game, was a quick game concept known as “Lambeau” (Andy Reid nomenclature with the Chiefs, perhaps conjured up in his time with Green Bay). But it’s been a Packers staple play for a long time and Thursday night it was used to great effect.
The play is just a simple arrow to the flat by the number four receiver in the 4x1. Usually, it’s run out of a 3x1 but the Packers used it to get Aaron Jones in space instead of a receiver. The receivers in front of him shield the pass-catcher from defenders as he catches the pass in the flat. The play lets Rodgers get the ball out quickly and into the hands of his playmakers.
Run pass options
The Packers thrive on the run-pass option game and have used several different wrinkles to get the ball to their playmakers in space. The quick game is a vital part of their offense. One way the Packers like to utilize Adams is by running him to the flat in the red zone off of an inside zone RPO or using him as a decoy for other receivers.
As a decoy here, Adams is sent on a quick flat while Lazard is running a quick slant route over the middle in the area vacated by Adams’ defender. Adams’ defender runs with him at the snap and the defender over Lazard gets caught with eyes on Adams as Lazard breaks inside. Easy pickings. Rodgers pulls the ball from Jones gets out to Lazard for the touchdown.
The Packers also have a variety of low red zone run-pass option specials they like to use that isolate Davante Adams in situations that cause confusion due to his short motion inside the slot receiver before bursting back out at the snap.
The 49ers are man coverage with Josh Norman (No. 26) over Adams and Deommodore Lenoir (No. 38) over Allen Lazard in the slot. Adams’s motion forces Norman to bounce over Lazard and Lenoir to travel with Adams. At the snap, Lenoir keeps running with the motion while Adams breaks back out underneath the natural pick that Lazard’s spot route creates.
Rodgers snap to throw in less than 2 seconds
One final the Packers can neutralize the pass rush is by relying on Rodgers’ quick release in the downfield passing game and identifying pre-snap match-ups. The Packers have a somewhat unique vertical game, not so much the concepts themselves, but in where they like to line up their personnel.
One of their favorite concepts is the “double go (middle read)” or “989” concept where the receivers on the outside run go routes and the slot or tight end inside runs a post or dig route where he “reads” the coverage in front of him and runs a post against 2-high safeties or a dig against single-high safety.
On their first third down, the Packers are running double go but from the slot receivers out of a 3x2 empty formation. Adams is lined up on the two receiver side with Tartt in press coverage and rookie safety Talonoa Hufanga shaded to that side.
The three-receiver side has Tonyan as the inside slot (No. 85) and Alan Lazard as the number two middle slot. The number one receivers on both sides are running quick hitches, Adams and Lazard are running slot fades, and Tonyan is running the middle read route.
Rodgers sees in the pre-snap assessment that Hufanga and Tartt have removed Adams from the play. Rodgers drops back and throws in about 1.8 seconds from snap to throw deep down the field to the slot fade to Lazard being covered by K’Waun Williams.
Also, notice Nick Bosa? He wins inside on this rep inside but is rendered ineffective as soon as Rodgers releases the pass.
Rodgers hit two more of these quick fade passes down the sideline to Adams later in the game and the coverage was near perfect. On the first pass with Lenoir in coverage, he maybe could’ve been tried to recover closer to Adams and used the sideline to force a tougher throw, though that completion is as tough as it gets and not many quarterbacks make it.
On the second throw, Dontae Johnson was in a better position than Lenoir to play the pass, but that also didn’t matter as Rodgers threw Adams open on the sideline away from Johnson. There isn’t much the defender can do in that case.
I timed both throws from snap to throw in about 1.7 seconds in the two clips above and I was about a half-second behind the release of the ball in stopping the clock so it was probably faster than 1.7, more like 1.5. That’s not enough time to affect anything.
The Packers cannot afford to let the 49ers’ dominant defensive line control the game while they’re on offense. Fans should expect to see a heavy reliance on quick game concepts that render Bosa and company ineffective. If they can do that, then they shouldn’t have any problem advancing to the next round of the playoffs.