There are so many gunslingers in today’s NFL, that you’d think it was the Wild West.
Fortunately, the 49ers have a Cowboy of their own in Justin Smith, and his deputy, Aldon Smith. These two have been charged with chasing down and locking up some of the most dangerous players in the game.
Pressure has been the ticket: Not giving these guys all day in the pocket to pick apart the secondary is the key.
By rattling their cage, forcing throws early, disrupting timing, burying the passer, and most importantly, not letting the elites establish any sort of a rhythm, the 49ers have gone 7-0 against New Orleans, Green Bay, New England and Atlanta in two seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh.
Though they’ve lived up to their billing, the Smith Brothers could use assistance with the rapid evolution of the passing attack—not to mention the fact that offenses have been focusing their blocking schemes to that side. It also does not help to have tight ends and backs chipping them, obstructing the path to quarterback.
They’ve been identified and zeroed in on.
Teams have begun to adapt, and thus, so must the San Francisco 49ers.
The NASCAR Package
Through an immaculate mishmash of personnel and scheme, the New York Giants concocted a savage pass rush under coach Tom Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese, which was an eminent factor in the team’s two Super Bowl titles in 2007 and 2011.
Not once, but twice it dismantled three-time Lombardi winner Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots.
Drifting from the norm, the Giants have built an incredible speed rush that has the capacity to flat-out incinerate offensive lines on any given down and is particularly effective against the pass. It stands out by utilizing up to four pure defensive ends along the front.
The difference here is that, by doing this, the New York defense makes the opposition’s interior O-line deal with copious amounts of speed, when, more often than not, it is acclimated to dealing with big-bodied power rushers.
This presents a new, unique challenge. This collage of long-limbed players take away passing lanes, trigger false starts and generally create favorable matchups, going around and underneath the pass protection.
In the 2012 season, defensive ends Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka helped make up the renowned NASCAR package, which even bullied the San Francisco 49ers O-line—a group that was rated No. 1 overall by Pro Football Focus.
The defense had six sacks on the day and forced a very efficient, very safe Alex Smith to throw three interceptions. It was largely due to the impact of the Giants’ nickel package, which sent a fierce rush after the 49ers quarterback.
Let’s take a look at one of the few plays highlighting the effectiveness of the NASCAR package.
Down and Distance: 3rd-and-6
At this point in the game, the 49ers are down 20 points, in an obvious passing situation with just under 10 minutes left in the game.
This allows the New York defense the leeway to get creative with the blitz, putting them in position to utilize four defensive ends on the line, as they’ve been inclined to do over the past few seasons.
From left to right, Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul dig into the grass, with Justin Tuck in the upright position (between Nos. 72 and 94, white), shading San Francisco’s left guard Mike Iupati.
If they’re coming straight downhill, the ‘Niners O-line has a chance to pick up the pass-rush, giving Smith enough time to get the ball out. However, the Giants are going to make it a little more complicated than that.
Kiwanuka, lined up in the 0-technique over center Jonathan Goodwin, is actually going to run a tackle-end stunt with left defensive, Pierre-Paul. Then with Tuck and Umenyiora—two of the more high profile players—crashing down on the left side of San Francisco’s line, the protection is forced to adjust.
Off the snap, 80 percent of the O-line takes a hard step to the left, leaving right tackle Anthony Davis one-on-one on an island with Jason Pierre-Paul.
Outside the left tackle and left guard, Jonathan Goodwin (C) and Leonard Davis (RG) focus their attention to Umenyiora, Tuck and then a stunting Kiwanuka, who has the athleticism and the wherewithal to hit the wide-open hole that’s been created in the B-gap.
Even worse, running back Frank Gore, also in pass-pro, is going to slide left.
Once Kiwanuka and Pierre-Paul get in the vicinity of one another, they challenge the 49ers offensive linemen again by crossing. This twist gets Leonard Davis and Anthony Davis way out of position.
Meanwhile, there is a whole lot of loitering going on the left side of the frame, where Umenyiora and Tuck are simply occupying the majority of the line, trusting either Kiwanuka or Pierre-Paul to get by.
At this point, the O-line cannot win the down and it is on Alex Smith to get rid of the football before being bagged by one of them.
The play is a bust.
After getting tangled, Anthony Davis releases, trying to avoid the holding call, while Kiwanuka is basically untouched on his way to Alex Smith for a sack that goes for a 14-yard loss, forcing the punt.
This was Smith’s last play of the game before coach Jim Harbaugh put Colin Kaepernick in to finish out the lashing at Candlestick Park.
Watch it happen:
So, after taking a close look at the NASCAR package, let’s see what has changed for the 49ers between 2012 and now that makes this an option for their defensive front all of a sudden.
Who Is Corey Lemonier?
In Sunday’s game versus the Green Bay Packers, linebacker Aldon Smith had two sacks, two hits, four hurries and a pass-rush productivity rating of 17.1, which placed him fifth of 34 3-4 outside linebackers.
Opposite him, Ahmad Brooks was essentially shut out, ranking 31 of 34 ‘backers in that same category, via Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus.
Again, though Brooks is a stout outside linebacker—a second-team All-Pro—he is more of a well-rounded player than he is a specialist of any sort. This is precisely why general manager Trent Baalke traded up in Round 3 for Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier.
He can be a weapon for this defense, starting right now.
In an episode of Niner Talk Central, 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area informed me that—when transitioning from college to the NFL—it doesn’t take long for a pass-rusher to show up on the scene (See: Aldon Smith, Von Miller).
“If you can rush the passer, you can rush the passer…and Corey Lemonier can rush the passer,” Maiocco said, via PFC.
The groundwork of his game is fundamentally structured around playing downhill and wreaking havoc in the opponent’s backfield. He did this, quite successfully, for Gene Chizik’s Tigers from 2010-2012 and even flashed that same ability during his first-ever NFL exhibition.
At 6’3”, 255 pounds, with less than 11 percent body fat, he is a lean, mean pass-rushing machine, per Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle. Lemonier can be called a speed rusher, but he has a great deal of power, so it really is not fair to quantify him as one or the other.
Frankly, he looks like the total package.
As for the speed aspect, he demonstrated incredible explosion off the snap, which was largely aided by his intuitive timing and quick first step. At the NFL Scouting Combine, he blazed a 4.60 40-time, making him one of the top performers at his position in that category.
NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock charted Lemonier in the late first-round category, based on his physical talent alone (via NFL.com).
Being that light on his feet, he has a lot of shake and twitch to his game, allowing him to bend and get around the corner in a hurry. It makes him a frightening edge presence. On the other hand, he is also powerful enough to bowl right through a blocker and make the play.
Add in the long 34.5” arms, which he can learn to use from All-Pro outside linebacker Aldon Smith, and there is a lot of upside with Lemonier. The long limbs, big mitts and strong upper body give him a heck of a first punch. All in all, it seems like he is too valuable to strap to the bench.
As for the installation of the NASCAR package…
Lemonier is adept enough to convert that speed into power and bull rush from the interior line. He can also use his lateral quickness to stunt with the outside man, very similar to what Kiwanuka did up top.
And being that he was originally a down defensive end in a 4-3 scheme in college, the 49ers know he can rush from the five-technique.
To throw him in the mix with Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith, creating a four-man line on obvious passing downs, would take this pass-rush to another level this season. No. 94, with his ability to absorb two men at a time, would almost always free up one of the three pass-rushers who are too good to be contained.
This gets them mismatches, like the Giants have been able to orchestrate.
Smith, Brooks and Lemonier are all capable of winning their one-on-ones, especially in today’s NFL, where not every team has an offensive line unit that is as filled out as San Francisco’s is.
This is the logical next step for the 49ers defense.
Extra Point: Thinking Outside the Box
We’ve addressed the key players for San Francisco when it comes to generating pressure on passing downs. Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier will all be pivotal figures in that sect of the defense.
Then with the pair of All-Pro inside ‘backers, who have excelled at freeing one another on inside blitzes and timing of late green dog blitzes, the 49ers are overflowing with talent in the box.
One of the newer elements we witnessed in preseason—something that Vic Fangio has not taken much advantage of during his tenure as the defensive coordinator—is utilizing the cornerback blitz.
In preseason, he finally let loose, sending No. 4 cornerback, Perrish Cox, from the nickel on multiple occasions. He played close to the line of scrimmage and fired off the snap, really surprising the quarterback from the blindside. Cox looked like the Honey Badger out there, which is not such a bad thing.
If the 49ers want to generate even more pressure and change up looks, they can begin sending Cox, along with first-round pick Eric Reid after the quarterback, while dropping other members of the front seven into coverage. It’ll confuse signal-callers and make blocking schemes respect more than just Aldon Smith.
Together, the NASCAR package and utilization of the secondary would add a whole new layer to San Francisco’s defense.
Statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Reference and Sports Reference (College Football), unless indicated otherwise. Thanks to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus for providing in-depth statistics regarding pass-rush productivity in 2013.