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What to Expect from San Francisco 49ers' Pass Rush Early in 2014 Season

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What to Expect from San Francisco 49ers' Pass Rush Early in 2014 Season
USA TODAY Sports

With a new-look secondary and a possible suspension to their best pass-rusher, the San Francisco 49ers naturally start the regular season against two of the most prolific passing offenses in the NFL

"Next man up" will be the 49ers defense's mantra against the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears.

Aldon Smith, who has 42 sacks in 43 regular-season games in his career, is scheduled to meet with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the near future about several off-the-field incidents, per ESPN's Ed Werder:

Many, including ESPN.com's Jim Trotter (h/t Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News), have speculated Smith will have to serve a two-game ban:

Assuming he does miss their first two games, the 49ers will likely look to Corey Lemonier to fill the void. 

 

Lemonier's Role Increased

On running downs, Dan Skuta is a viable option to play Smith's position. Lemonier is the favorite to get the passing-down snaps like he did last season when Smith missed five games in rehab.

2013 PFF Pass-Rush Productivity
PR Snaps Pressure % Sacks
Aldon Smith 289 19.0 9
Ahmad Brooks 445 9.8 9
Corey Lemonier 178 13.4 1

Pro Football Focus

Lemonier is no Smith, as you can see from the graphic above. However, don't let his sack total fool you. 

He ranked 12th in Pro Football Focus' pass-rushing productivity among 41 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 (subscription required). Lemonier played at least 36 snaps in each game without Smith, and the 49ers went 5-0 in them.

At the 35-second mark of the video below, he easily sheds Arizona Cardinals tackle Bradley Sowell for a safety, showing his ability to turn the corner with quickness:

Still, the Niners are inevitably going to get less pressure from their outside linebackers with Smith on the sidelines. Veterans Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks will be tasked with picking up the slack. 

The wild card is Tank Carradine. 

The second-round pick was one of college football's best pass-rushers in 2012. He would have been a first-round pick had he not torn his ACL late in that season. 

As you can see from the video below, Carradine had success rushing from the defensive tackle and end positions during his senior season at Florida State:

I'm not expecting a breakout performance in either of his two first games. However, he should see some playing time in San Francisco's 4-2-5 nickel defense on passing downs. And there figures to be plenty of them against Dallas and Chicago.  

 

Week 1 vs. Dallas

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In 2013, Tony Romo struggled more than most quarterbacks when under pressure. He was also one of the top QBs in the NFL when not pressured.

As Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus noted, he was particularly bad against non-blitz pressure. This should play into the 49ers' hands. 

San Francisco blitzed only 19.7 percent of the time last season, which was the third-lowest rate in the league, per Nathan Janke of PFF. The 49ers are used to rushing only four and getting pressure. They were sixth-best in PFF's pass-rushing productivity when not blitzing. 

Where the Niners will have most of their success is up the middle. Dallas' guards and centers (usually Travis Frederick, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary) allowed 68 quarterback hurries combined in 2013. Justin Smith is still one of the best interior pass-rushers in the league, and he'll have his way pushing the pocket toward Romo against rookie guard Zack Martin and the Cowboys' other interior linemen. 

Of Dallas' starting tackles, Doug Free is the weaker link (six sacks allowed in 2013). Tyron Smith is a Pro Bowler capable of shutting down his opponent. He allowed just one sack in 2013.

Plan A is to get pressure by rushing only four and use bracket coverage to contain Dez Bryant. If the Niners get no pressure with four, they'll have to go with the more dangerous Plan Bblitz often and leave the young secondary vulnerable. 

USA TODAY Sports
The Cowboys will have their hands full blocking Justin Smith.

The reward of blitzing Romo can be huge. He averaged only 3.8 yards per pass when pressured on blitzes. But there's risk—he averaged 8.1 yards per pass when not pressured on blitzes.  

When the teams last met in 2011, Romo was 20-of-33 for 345 yards and two touchdowns in Dallas' 27-24 overtime win. At the 1:04 mark of this NFL.com video, Romo beats a 49ers blitz with a perfectly timed ball to Miles Austin (who's now with the Cleveland Browns) for a 53-yard touchdown. 

That's the type of play the Niners will want to avoid with their new-look secondary.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio can rely on Smith and other interior pass-rushers (McDonald and Carradine) to make Romo uncomfortable while keeping seven in coverage to defend Bryant, Terrance Williams and Jason Witten.

 

Week 2 vs. Chicago

USA TODAY Sports

This is a scarier matchup for the 49ers. And it's because Jay Cutler loves to test secondaries with bombs down the field. 

When these teams last met in 2012, the Bears couldn't block Aldon Smith, who tallied 5.5 sacks. Also, Alshon Jeffery was a rookie finding his way, Marc Trestman was a CFL head coach, and Jason Campbell was starting for an injured Cutler. Suffice to say, many things have changed since San Francisco's 32-7 win. 

Assuming Smith is suspended for this matchup, the 49ers will have to find other ways to create pressure. 

Fortunately for San Francisco, Chicago's tackles are mediocre pass-blockers. Jordan Mills and Jermon Bushrod allowed 104 quarterback hurries combined in 2013, far and away the most allowed by a tackle tandem (in fairness, Cutler deserves some of the blame for holding the ball too long). 

What the 49ers don't want is Cutler consistently having time to target Jeffery and Brandon Marshall down the field. As Palazzolo noted, Cutler was PFF's top rated quarterback on throws of 30 yards or more in 2013.

Which leaves the 49ers in a pickle: blitz more or play more deep zones?

USA TODAY Sports
Ahmad Brooks had 4.5 sacks in San Francisco's three playoff games last season.

Expect Fangio to go with the latter. 

When not pressured on blitzes, Cutler had six touchdowns, one interception and a 127.1 QB rating in 2013. When the Bears pick up the blitz, he effectively buries defenses with deep passes. That's the situation Fangio must avoid. 

Instead, what the Niners can do is rush four, preferably getting pressure on the outside with Brooks and Lemonier, and wait for Cutler to make a mistake. After all, the turnover-prone signal-caller has a career interception rate of 3.4 percent (Colin Kaepernick's is 1.7).

Cutler was particularly good when throwing go routes to Jeffery and Marshall. To prevent such completions, safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea will have to play effectively in their deep zones. 

 

Fangio Gonna Fangio

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

With Romo so bad against pressure and Aldon Smith likely suspended, the 49ers may be tempted to blitz often. But that's not Fangio's style. 

He knows blitzing doesn't always lead to more pressures. Instead, his strategy since becoming San Francisco's DC in 2011 has been to pick his spots. 

His strategy works. 

Last season, the 49ers were fifth in PFF's pass-rushing productivity per blitz. When they send at least one extra defender, they make it count. 

Some teams are so bad against the blitz that Fangio would likely break his own tendencies and send five-plus defenders more. 

Neither Dallas nor Chicago is one of those teams. 

Even without his best pass-rusher, Fangio will stay true to himself. It'll be up to the 49ers' front four to get pressure without help to make him look good. 

 

All stats via Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted. Joseph Akeley is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist. Follow him on Twitter. 

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