What's Wrong with the 49ers Pass Rush?

Peter PanacyCorrespondent ISeptember 23, 2014

San Francisco's pass rush has been largely absent after three weeks in the 2014 season.
San Francisco's pass rush has been largely absent after three weeks in the 2014 season.Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Three games into the 2014 NFL season, the San Francisco 49ers defense is struggling to generate the same type of pressure up front that made it such a vaunted unit in recent years.

In those three games, the 49ers pass rush amassed a mere four sacks—three of which came from veteran defensive end Justin Smith.

We expected coming into this season that San Francisco's pass rush would struggle, especially in the absence of outside linebacker Aldon Smith—serving a nine-game suspension for his off-the-field issues—and inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, one of the best blitzing interior LBs in the NFL. We knew the 49ers would have to figure out a way to get beyond Smith's absence, in particular, in order to generate similar pressure.

Aldon Smith's suspension is unquestionably hindering the 49ers' pass rush.
Aldon Smith's suspension is unquestionably hindering the 49ers' pass rush.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

So far, this isn't happening.

True, the lack of pass rush is only a part of San Francisco's woes this season. But it is a big part.

Let's think about it for a second.

The lack of a pass rush gives opposing quarterbacks the time to find holes in San Francisco's secondary. Any team's defensive backfield is vulnerable to a quarterback who has time wait for receivers to break open or to find alternative receivers if his initial read is taken away from him. Quarterbacks allowed enough time to pick apart a defense can sustain drives and tire out that defense. Conversely, the other team's defense gets a chance to rest.

It's a whirlpool of an effect and the results have not been pretty for the 49ers.

In Week 1, we saw Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo essentially shoot himself in the foot with three interceptions, which made us believe that the lack of pass rush—aside from the pressure applied by Justin Smith—was not as big a problem.

But Weeks 2 and 3 revealed vastly different results. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and his Arizona Cardinals counterpart, Drew Stanton, were able to pick apart the 49ers defense, thanks in large part to having sufficient time to throw the ball.  

Lack of pressure allowed Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton to pick apart San Francisco's defense in Week 3.
Lack of pressure allowed Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton to pick apart San Francisco's defense in Week 3.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

This lack of pressure by the 49ers defense contributed to the epic meltdowns suffered by San Francisco in its back-to-back losses.

So let's break down this problematic issue and try to evaluate just what is going wrong with San Francisco and its lack of pressure up front.

 

Justin Smith has logged three of the 49ers' four sacks in 2014.
Justin Smith has logged three of the 49ers' four sacks in 2014.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Numbers

As stated above, the 49ers have registered just four sacks on the young season, and three of them have come from Justin Smith, the elder statesman on the defensive line.

While it is good to see the 34-year-old playing at a high level, the lack of contributions from his fellow front-seven defenders is an obvious cause for concern.

With Aldon Smith suspended, the bulk of pass-rushing work has fallen upon second-year pro Corey Lemonier. Lemonier registered 17.0 sacks in three years at Auburn but has only one at the pro level.

Before Week 3, Lemonier had zero quarterback pressures in 50 pass-rushing attempts, per Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus. Still, Lemonier continues to be featured in pass-rushing situations.

Corey Lemonier is off to a slow start in 2014.
Corey Lemonier is off to a slow start in 2014.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Compounding the problem has been the equally dissatisfying production from eight-year linebacker Ahmad Brooks. Brooks and Lemonier posted a minus-5.7 overall combined grade through the first two games of the season, which puts them tied at the bottom of PFF's 3-4 OLB rankings, per Deeney.

It is safe to say the 49ers are not getting the job done without Smith. It is also worth pointing out that the suspended linebacker torched the Bears with 5.5 sacks the last time these two teams met in 2012.

On a positive note, defensive tackle Ian Williams graded out positively according to PFF (plus-3.7), as he logged one quarterback pressure and three tackles in Week 3.

Here is a side-by-side look at the 49ers' 2013 and 2014 sack totals after three games.

49ers' 2013 & 2014 Sack Totals After Week 3
20132014
Ahmad Brooks1.01.0
Glenn Dorsey (IR in 2014)1.00
Ray McDonald0.50
Aldon Smith (Suspended through Week 10 of 2014)4.50
Justin Smith03.0
Total7.04.0
pro-football-reference.com

The difference in numbers was made evident by the lack of San Francisco's pass rush against Arizona on Sunday.

Stanton, starting for the injured Carson Palmer, logged an average depth of 16.7 yards per target, which was the highest figure of any quarterback since Tim Tebow's 16.7 stat from Week 11 in 2011 (per Pro Football Focus, h/t Paul Gutierrez of ESPN).

Thirteen of Stanton's 33 pass attempts traveled 20 yards or longer beyond the line of scrimmage—the highest number by any quarterback this season. And all from a perennial backup!

Saying something is wrong here is quite the understatement.

 

San Francisco proved inept at getting to Stanton in Week 3.
San Francisco proved inept at getting to Stanton in Week 3.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

The Film

They say numbers don't lie—and neither does the film.

Anyone who has watched San Francisco's games in 2014 could tell you that the team is failing to generate the amount of pressure necessary to thwart opposing quarterbacks. The lack of pressure has helped signal-callers like Cutler and Stanton find their groove in the second half after slow starts.

We should give credit where it's due and admit that Cutler and Stanton did make some stellar plays in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively. But we also have to acknowledge that these numbers were assisted by the inability of the 49ers' front seven to get after the quarterback.

Let's take a look at some specific examples.

The first play we'll evaluate comes in the third quarter against the Cardinals. Stanton completes a 45-yard pass to Michael Floyd at the 11:27 mark.

We notice here that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio draws up a four-man rush. (Note that the defensive back at the bottom of the line is actually in coverage with the left outside linebacker who is poised to rush the QB).

The 49ers will send a typical four-man rush on this defensive play.
The 49ers will send a typical four-man rush on this defensive play.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Arizona's offensive line does an excellent job of pushing San Francisco's pass-rushers to the outside, which opens up a lane for Stanton to step up in the pocket. Notice two blockers denying any attempt for front-side pressure on the Cardinals quarterback.

San Francisco's pressure fails to sufficiently collapse the pocket.
San Francisco's pressure fails to sufficiently collapse the pocket.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Stanton is now free to make this 45-yard pass.

Stanton steps up in the pocket and completes a deep pass to Michael Floyd.
Stanton steps up in the pocket and completes a deep pass to Michael Floyd.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

On the same drive, Stanton completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to rookie John Brown.

Lemonier lines up on the right side of the line in a nickel defense. Brooks is lined up on the opposite side.

Another four-man rush has Lemonier attempting to get around the side.
Another four-man rush has Lemonier attempting to get around the side.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Lemonier is pushed beyond the pocket, giving Stanton (highlighted in red) the opportunity to find Brown before Brooks can converge.

Lemonier is pushed outside of the play, allowing Stanton to complete the touchdown pass.
Lemonier is pushed outside of the play, allowing Stanton to complete the touchdown pass.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Touchdown Cardinals.

Unfortunately, this has been an all-too frequent occurrence for Lemonier this season. He has failed to change up his moves and counter back to the inside. Instead, he most often takes an outside rush and is pushed beyond the quarterback. Meanwhile, other 49er pass-rushers, with some exceptions, have largely been unable to make the opposing quarterback feel uncomfortable in the pocket or force him to deliver the ball earlier than he would like to.

 

The lack of a pass rush has been detrimental to the 49ers this season.
The lack of a pass rush has been detrimental to the 49ers this season.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

The Fixes

Are there any? Is there an easy answer to this question?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

The easy solution would be for the 49ers to blitz more. According to Deeney, Fangio called for a blitz just once against Cutler and the Bears in Week 2. We know Fangio likes to rush no more than four players, so sending additional pass-rushers might generate more heat. 

At least in theory.

But this didn't work out as well as planned in Week 3 versus Arizona. According to PFF (h/t Gutierrez), San Francisco blitzed Stanton 14 times out of 40 pass plays and sent six players three times.

These results generated a whopping total of zero sacks.

We can see another example of this failure here. At the 11:39 mark of the fourth quarter, Fangio sends a seven-man blitz in an attempt to overload one side of the formation and collapse the pocket.

San Francisco will rush seven in this aggressive play.
San Francisco will rush seven in this aggressive play.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

But the Cardinals O-line holds long enough to allow Stanton to complete a 13-yard pass to tight end John Carlson.

Stanton is still able to deliver the pass prior to the pressure reaching him.
Stanton is still able to deliver the pass prior to the pressure reaching him.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Let's now preview what blitzing might do to the 49ers' chances in Week 4 against the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.

Zero pressure triggers a plethora of problems, but blitzing might not be the answer. According to Gutierrez, blitzing may play to the strength's of the Eagles' high-flying, fast-paced offense.

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles has not been sacked since Week 1.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles has not been sacked since Week 1.USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foleswho leads the NFL with 978 passing yards, has not been sacked since Week 1.

Let's compound the problem even further.

The current trio of Brooks, Lemonier, Ray McDonald is not getting the job done up front. One might think San Francisco would consider mixing in second-year pros Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial to generate more pressure as well as give the starters a rest.

Dial had an impressive preseason, as did Carradine, who posted a 3.3 grade rushing the passer, according to PFF's Deeney.

In spite of an impressive preseason, second-year pro Tank Carradine has yet to take a snap in 2014.
In spite of an impressive preseason, second-year pro Tank Carradine has yet to take a snap in 2014.Rob Carr/Getty Images

But neither reserve lineman has seen ample action in the three regular-season games. Carradine, a prolific pass-rusher from Florida State, has been active just once and has yet to log a snap on defense.

Why?

The safe conclusion to reach is that Carradine's development is still not meeting the expectations of Fangio, Jim Harbaugh and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Back in August, Fangio stated that Carradine was making too many mental mistakes

Could this same aspect be what is holding Carradine back from seeing the field? It seems to be the only logical explanation, especially considering that Carradine's physical prowess should be exactly what San Francisco needs to address its pass-rushing woes.

Still, the thought of inserting Carradine and/or Dial into various situations prompts interest. As stated, the current front seven is not stepping up enough to suggest that the 49ers should stick with this formula much longer.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will have to overcome the adversity that has befallen his pass-rushers.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will have to overcome the adversity that has befallen his pass-rushers.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Another plausible solution is to insert rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch into the lineup. Like Carradine and Dial, Lynch had a strong preseason and may be considered for additional playing time.

We could make the "definition of insanity" statement here, but it is worth noting that Fangio—given that he blitzed Arizona far more than he did Chicago the previous week—has tried to shake things up a bit, albeit with lackluster results so far.

Perhaps the next phase of changes is due.

At any rate, the 49ers are approaching wit's end when it comes to addressing this pressing need. Yes, Aldon Smith is dearly missed at this point, but the point is moot until his eventual return. 

Whether or not San Francisco can implement a sufficient pass rush remains to be seen, but this factor is guaranteed to have significant consequences upon the team's prospects for the season.

 

All statistics and records courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.

Follow him @PeterPanacy on Twitter.