49ers vs. Jets: Why Pressuring Mark Sanchez Is Crucial for San Francisco Defense
Under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers are a perfect 4-0 in games following a loss.
Said streak will be put to the test this Sunday in New York.
The Niners' Week 3 upset loss to the Minnesota Vikings was an uncharacteristic performance for the Red and Gold, to say the least. The defense failed to consistently rush the passer, and when they did, Christian Ponder was able to escape and make several key plays on the move.
But this Harbaugh-led squad isn't one to sulk. Rather, they'll look to head home from their 10-day road trip with a win over the New York Jets on Sunday—a game they'll need to keep the surprisingly undefeated Arizona Cardinals from stretching their lead in the NFC West.
One key way to get back in the win column is to ramp up the pressure and keep Jets QB Mark Sanchez from finding a rhythm throughout the game.
Ponder was able to successfully ward off 49ers pass-rushers and connect with his receivers on several remarkably accurate throws. He's second in the NFL in completion percentage (70.1) right now, and it's not because he played the defensively inept Jaguars and Colts the first two weeks of the season, either.
Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford, the first two QBs the Niners faced this year, ranked in the top five in completion percentage in 2011, so life hasn't been easy for San Fran in pass coverage thus far in 2012.
Aside from Minnesota, though, they've performed admirably.
Sanchez is an excellent change of pace for the Niners in that he currently ranks dead last in the NFL in completion percentage (50.5) and is typically horrid under pressure.
In 2011, Pro Football Focus graded the Jets signal-caller as the most inaccurate QB in the league when facing pressure. In 2010, PFF again graded Sanchez as the NFL's least accurate passer under pressure.
Here's a prime example of the fourth-year pro's odd habit of simply cutting it loose when he feels uncomfortable in the pocket.
Notice that the Steelers have six guys lined up over the Jets offensive linemen, and, of course, each one of them is blitzing. Pittsburgh employs tactics like these often, and they're extremely productive against skittish signal-callers like Sanchez.
The Jets are lined up in a three-receiver set, with a TE who runs a seam route straight up the field. The Steelers have just five guys in pass coverage, so there are one-on-one matchups to be found.
Leave it to Sanchez, though, to target the guy who draws the extra defender. His target on the play, tight end Jeff Cumberland, is in a dead sprint off the snap but only gets six yards down the field before the pass hits him in the back.
No receiver in their right mind would be expecting a pass that quickly. I wonder if Sanchez shouted "Cumberland, think fast!" before he released the ball. He literally took a single, quick step back and fired away.
Not smart. Especially considering the play was on third down, and in the red zone.
On this play last week against Miami, Sanchez is lined up under center instead of in the shotgun.
The Dolphins rush only five defenders but are able get pressure around the edge. It's a play-action pass, so by the time Sanchez fakes the handoff and sets his feet, DE Cameron Wake is zeroing in on the QB from the outside.
This forces Sanchez to move up into the pocket, where the interior D-line has pushed the line of scrimmage into the backfield. Instead of scrambling to his right (where there are no defenders) and seeing a wide open Konrad Reuland (cut by the 49ers during preseason) with his arms in the air in an attention-grabbing fashion, Sanchez fires a deep ball into triple coverage.
For what it is, the ball was surprisingly thrown pretty well. That said, it's an extremely dangerous pass and one San Francisco's ball-hawking secondary (Donte Whitner not included) is better equipped to capitalize on than Miami's.
OLB Ahmad Brooks was one of the few 49ers to turn in a solid performance against the Vikings, and he's in prime position to follow it up with an even stronger one this week.
The Jets aren't awful in pass protection, but their weakest link in that regard is right tackle Austin Howard, by a long shot. According to PFF, only three other offensive tackles in the NFL have been worse in pass protection to this point.
Brooks will spend much of the day lining up across from Howard, so keep your eye on No. 55 throughout the contest.
The Smiths, Justin and Aldon, must get pressure on the other side of the line. It would be wise for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to incorporate added pressure from the inside linebackers on occasion as well.
Sanchez will slide up into the pocket if he feels pressure from the outside, but he's a lot more likely to make poor decisions with the football if there's no pocket for him to move into.
Like most NFL teams, the 49ers are excellent at disguising their defensive game plan. Often times Fangio will bring his All-Pro inside linebackers—Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman—to the line of scrimmage to make the offense fear the blitz.
Typically, the two slide back into pass coverage and don't actually blitz, but I think we'd all enjoy seeing the coaching staff release the hounds on occasion.
San Fran just has to be extremely cautious—the Jets do have receivers that can do some damage in space.
One other player to focus on this week is Ricky Jean-Francois. The reserve defensive lineman will get the start at nose tackle against the Jets due to Isaac Sopoaga's leg (knee, ankle) injury. Jean-Francois is smaller than Sopoaga, but he's the more agile of the two and would help a ton in the pass rush with a strong performance.
Before the Jets' overtime win against the Dolphins last week, New York held a record of 1-12 in games where Sanchez threw more interceptions than touchdowns. That includes an 0-5 record in 2011 alone.
If the 49ers can rattle him early on Sunday, there's a solid chance it happens again.
If it does, you can make that 5-0 for Harbaugh's 49ers in games following a loss.
All Screenshots Courtesy of NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @B_Burnett49er
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