Why Pass Rush Is Pivotal to Success of San Francisco 49ers' Defense in 2015

Nicholas McGeeContributor IJuly 8, 2015

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 16:  (R-L) Aaron Lynch #59 and  Aldon Smith #99 of the San Francisco 49ers sack  Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants  at MetLife Stadium on November 16, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Pressure. Offenses hate it, and all defenses want to create it. In 2015, it is crucial to the success of the San Francisco 49ers that they are able to generate a pass rush as they aim for a bounce-back year under new head coach Jim Tomsula.

The 49ers have long been one of the best defensive teams in the league and still finished the 2014 season in the top five in total defense despite a number of injuries to key players and posting only 36 sacks. However, this unit has lost too many pieces to continue to succeed with a struggling pass rush.

Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland all retired from the front seven, while Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox departed in free agency. And although Smith and Willis were big factors in the 49ers' past success in pressuring opposing quarterbacks, it is the loss of Culliver and Cox that has placed added importance on the pass rush for defensive coordinator Eric Mangini's group.

Tramaine Brock is one of few experienced 49er corners
Tramaine Brock is one of few experienced 49er cornersEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Indeed, with the losses it has suffered, the 49ers secondary is looking much younger and inexperienced and will likely start the season with Tramaine Brock and either Shareece Wright or Dontae Johnson as the two starting corners. Jimmie Ward will be expected to resume his role as the nickel man, but beyond that quartet the depth is going to come from players such as Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker, who have not seen the field in true competitive fashion.

At safety the Niners have a three-time Pro Bowler in Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid, who is emerging as one of the leaders on defense and has a Pro Bowl season under his belt. However, the simple fact is that no team will be scared of the 49ers secondary going into 2015, and while Brock and Johnson are capable starters, the somewhat shaky look of this group means it is vital the pass rush does not allow opposing quarterbacks time to pick apart the back end of the defense.

Despite the low sack numbers in 2014, the 49ers were still able to affect the quarterback, totaling 190 quarterback hurries and 45 hits, according to Pro Football Focus. The challenge for the Niners defense in the coming campaign is to turn that pressure into sacks, and it is one the team must rise to in an NFC West that remains one of the best divisions in football.

While Russell Wilson appears to thrive with the pocket collapsing around him because of his ability to scramble, getting more pressure on Carson Palmer and Nick Foles would be advantageous for the San Francisco defense.

The aging and fragile Palmer is far from mobile enough to escape the rush on a consistent basis. Foles ranked fifth among all quarterbacks in the league when under pressure in 2013, per PFF, but the 49ers flustered him in Week 4 of last season, which was cut short for the former third-round pick because of injury.

On that occasion the Niners had just one sack of Foles but hit him five times and recorded 10 hurries, per PFF. The Philadelphia Eagles signal-caller finished with just 195 yards on 21 completions with no touchdowns and two interceptions in the game.

With the Rams having improved their running game through the selections of Tre Mason and Todd Gurley in consecutive drafts, putting St. Louis in 3rd-and-long situations by getting to Foles should be imperative for a defense whose run-stopping abilities could well be decreased by the losses of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald on the defensive line.

The Cardinals' ground attack, despite of the addition of David Johnson through the draft, looks to be the worst in the division, and sustained and successful pressure of Palmer seems to be the key to putting an offense that has caused the 49ers problems with its deep passing game into a hole.

In short, if the Niners want to be successful in the divisional games, which will probably be pivotal to their hopes of a quick return to the playoffs, then the pass rush must perform. The good news for San Francisco is that it has plenty of players who are more than capable of getting to the quarterback.

Jeff Deeney @PFF_Jeff

Percentage of pass rushes getting pressure in 2014: A. Smith: 14.0% Lynch: 12.4% Brooks: 8.4% (Justin Houston led 3-4 OLBs at 19.1%) #49ers

Although he only had two sacks following his return from suspension, much will be expected of Aldon Smith in what is a contract year for the former first-team All-Pro. Aaron Lynch will look to take the next step after a six-sack rookie season, while Ahmad Brooks, for all his problems last season, has had at least five sacks in every year of his career with the Niners.

Rookie outside linebacker Eli Harold could also contribute as a pass-rusher, and first-round pick Arik Armstead and free-agent signing Darnell Dockett will aim to make an impact as part of the defensive line rotation. However, perhaps the biggest boost to the pass rush is the return of NaVorro Bowman, who, prior to his injury, was one of the best in the league at pressuring the quarterback from the inside linebacker position. He posted five sacks in his magnificent 2013 season.

At this stage of the year it is impossible to say how the defensive line and the secondary will perform, but the losses suffered during the offseason suggest there could be a drop-off in play in those areas of the defense. If that is the case, then the 49ers will have to depend on a talented group of pass-rushers who must rise to the pressure in 2015.

Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.


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