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Pass Rush Is What Makes the 49ers’ Defense Special

San Francisco’s defense yields 113 rushing yards per game, ranking in the middle of the league at 16th most. The comparable number for the Packers, who yield the tenth most, is an insignificant eight yards more per game. Like defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Niners are normally tuned into stifling the pass game rather than the ground game.

It’s at pass defense that SF excels – the Niners’ roster was built this way. They are tops in the league at restricting passing yardage, allowing a miserly 169 yards per game on the regular season. In contrast, the Packers rank a semi-respectable fourteenth, which translates to yielding 63 more yards per game than the Niners. That’s a significant margin.

Combining the two numbers, SF ranked second (to the Pats) in least total yardage given up, while the Packers were a lowly eighteenth. The Packers will have to show considerable improvement if this yawning gap is to be narrowed on Sunday. Much of that challenge rests on Aaron Rodgers’ shoulders.

Vikings QB Kirk Cousins sacked by San Francisco 49ers defense

Jan 11, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Kentavius Street (95) and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Dee Ford (55) sack Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during the fourth quarter in a NFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Levi’s Stadium. Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Pass Rushers

The 49ers owe their defensive success to their exceptionally strong pass rush. As a team, the 49ers finished 2019 tied for fifth in sacks with 48. To get there, San Francisco has invested a tremendous amount of money and draft choices. This was made possible by a series of losing records in recent years: 5-11 in 2015, 2-14 in 2016, 6-10 in 2017, and 4-12 just a year ago.

Their most acclaimed pass rusher is Joey Bosa, the third overall pick in the 2016 draft. Bosa recorded nine sacks, and 25 quarterback hits, in 2019. Even so, he was surpassed in sacks by fifth-year man and former first round pick Arik Armstead, who had 10 sacks (and 18 QB hits). In addition, they have 295-pound defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, the seventh overall pick in 2016, who had 7.5 sacks (and 14 QB hits) on the year.

And if that’s not enough, coming off of an injury is defensive end Dee Ford, the 23rd overall pick in 2014. After receiving the franchise tag from the Chiefs last March, Ford was signed up two weeks later by San Francisco – at a cost of $85.5 million over five years. Though limited to eleven games in 2019, he managed to record 6.5 sacks. Ford returned from injury against the Vikings, and played about half the game.

As Minnesota put up so feeble a struggle, the Niners actually were able to rest many players for part of the game on Saturday,

Rodgers was sacked five times by the Niners in Week 12. If there’s a repeat, the Pack will again be routed. However, signs indicate that’s unlikely, as Rodgers – to his great credit – has averaged being sacked fewer than twice a game over the last six wins.

Defensive Backs

Though it sounds strange in 2020, the 49ers’ foremost pass defender is none other than Richard Sherman, the kid from Compton who will turn 32 in March. Sherman has bested Rodgers several times over the years when playing for Seattle. He was also named to his fifth Pro Bowl team this season, after a two-year absence, though whether that was based as much on reputation or current performance I wouldn’t know.

Though his stats this past season weren’t what they used to be (61 tackles, 11 passes defended, and three interceptions), in his second year with the Niners he still finds ways to force incompletions. Many teams still won’t throw to the offensive right side of the field when Sherman is patrolling there. On Sunday, will Sherman stay parked there, or will he shadow Davante, who predominantly lines up on the offensive left side?

Defensive Summary

Whether the Niners’ boffo pass rush can again disrupt quarterback Rodgers will be a key to who will come out on top in the NFC Championship game.

The encouraging thing is that Green Bay has an excellent O-line, and four decent tight end blockers, to counter the strength of the 49ers. For that matter, the running backs and even the receivers have all shown their willingness to contribute as blockers – they’ll all be needed if Rodgers is to stay upright come Sunday.

Changes Needed for a Different Result

My biggest concern is that San Francisco could stifle the Packers’ run game – if they snuff out Aaron Jones like they just did to the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook, the Packers entire offense might implode.

Against the Seahawks, Jones’s stats weren’t good, but they were also a bit misleading. He must have had at least a half-dozen carries where he was met behind the line of scrimmage, resulting in lost yardage several times.

I blame the play calls. In most of these cases, the play designs featured no deception, fakery, options, or surprises. The Seahawks simply stacked things up wherever Jones was headed, which was usually right up the gut – and which included most of those third-and-short and goal-line carries. It takes some guts to go wide and risk a loss in these situations, but continually doing the predictable isn’t the answer.

As I’ve maintained ad nauseum, about one of three rushes by Jones should go wide, not up the middle. His strengths are quickness and elusiveness, not raw power – he needs some amount of open space in which to work.

I’d also recommend more two-back sets, more receivers put in motion (and not always just for show), so defenders can’t readily tell who will get the ball or which direction the play will go. One sweep per game doesn’t establish a credible threat of our running backs going wide. In general, LaFleur needs to do much more to disguise, and vary, how he employs his running backs.

Whenever Rodgers operates from the shotgun and out of an empty backfield – which is all too often – the defenders no longer have to think – opportunities for confusion or blown coverages by defenders are lost.

Additionally, the coach needs to COMMIT to passing to his RBs – Aaron and Jamaal are among the best receivers on the roster. Seventeen games in, I shouldn’t have to keep pleading for this. Passing to the RBs is the ideal way to counter teams with single-minded pass rushers. Against the Seahawks, Jones and Williams combined for three throws, two catches, 13 yards – unacceptable.

Of all the changes that are warranted by the Packers since Week 12, my first priority would be to significantly alter the game plans and play calls. LaFleur way back in January summarized his offensive philosophy as being to create the “illusion of complexity.” Good idea. Now let’s see more of it in the team’s second visit to Levi’s Stadium.

Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.



  1. Skinny January 17, 2020

    And ZaDarious and Preston still had more sacks then the Niners top 2 guys. But lets keep crowning the Niners. Its more fuel for me when the Packers win Sunday.

    1. Kato January 17, 2020

      Dude. No one is minimizing the Packers pass rushers. But sitting here pretending that people are crowning the 49ers pass rush for no reason is fucking stupid. The reason they are so good is they have four very good players up front, and you can’t exactly double any one single guy. This allows them to just rush those four most of the time and play coverage with the rest creating a huge defensive advantage, especially when one corner shuts down a side of the field. Good God. Stay in school people.

      1. PF4L January 17, 2020

        Stay in school kids!! I have no idea where you come up with these comical quips Kato (cough).
        But serious…excellent response to skinny.

        1. Kato January 17, 2020

          Sorry man, I know it’s your trademarked phrase, but it was warranted here

          1. PF4L January 17, 2020

            It’s all good. I saw your “eat a d…. comment the other day….i just smiled.

  2. Zwoeger January 17, 2020

    January 2015 I had planned to watch SB at the Rotterdam Troyans club house. Obviously I didn’t go there, watched the next monday at home. This time I don’t plan a thing.

  3. Howard January 17, 2020

    The 49ers have a very good defense that can and will dominate games. The Packers offense was dominated in the week 12 game, and that includes every player and coach on that side of the ball.
    One thing to look at is how has the very good 49ers defense performed since. The 49ers defense gave up 20 in a loss to the Ravens on a very wet field. They then gave up 46 to the Saints, 23 to the Falcons in a loss, 31 to the Rams in a win, and 21 to the Seahawks in a win. The 49ers did at home to the Vikings what the Packers did to the Vikings away. Granted Cook did not play in that game.
    The 49ers defense has been giving up more points as the regular season progressed. In all those games the front of the 49ers put pressure on the passer, including the Saints O-line. Some of those teams had the benefit of a mobile QB. Some had stationary QBs (Saints, Falcons). The Rams QB is in between. One thing in common in all those games is short passes to the sidelines, outside runs, move the pocket, and when you get a chance max protect and go for the deep pass.
    I would propose to anyone who has a chance to look at the Rams week 16 game against the 49ers. That is what I believe LaFleur is going to model his offensive game plan after. In the week 16 game the Rams used jet sweep motion on the majority of the plays, something the Packers did maybe once or twice in the week 12 game. This makes the DEs and linebackers hesitate. The Rams stacked receivers near the tackles something the Packers did seldom. This allows anyone of 2 or 3 receivers to wham the DE. The Rams ran a lot of outside zone run motion with receivers running opposite the run motion. Again causing defensive hesitation. The Packers did this a few times in the week 12 game but not like the Rams. The Rams along with the other teams knew better than to pull a guard. The 49ers linemen will shoot the gap and blowup the play. Keep hats on hats and try to combo block the interior 49er lineman.
    Some may say the Packers offense is what it is at this point and I would probably agree. However, the Packers have incorporated many of the concepts as the Rams they just do not use them as often as the Rams. I think this is the week.

    1. Deepsky January 17, 2020

      Good post. The only comment I would make is that the 49ers defense is healthier than its been in a while.

      1. PF4L January 17, 2020

        They are healthier with Ford back, and Joe Staley.
        I give the Packers a 10-15% chance of winning this game. That’s brutal of me, i know.
        To win this game LaFleur has to rise to Shanahan’s level in game planning and…making in game adjustments. The O line has to play out of their minds. It would help if the receivers after Adams catch the ball. going through their hands or the ball hitting the front of their face mask isn’t going to cut it. MVS…DONT slow down when Rodgers is passing to your game speed. Rodgers…..no more Special Olympic passes throwing behind a receiver 10 yards away. Lets never…ever…..call a play where Rodgers throws out a pass wide to a receiver at the line of scrimmage just to get stuffed or gain a whole yard or two. Talk about wasted plays.

        1. KzooPackFan January 17, 2020

          I think you are a little pessimistic. I put GB chances at closer to 30 percent, not quite winning 1 out of 3 if they played a series, but better than 1 out of 4. Or maybe 1 out of 4. I’m quibbling tho.

          You are right about what they have to do, but I think the O line has to play well, and avoid injury, I wouldn’t say play out of their minds/way beyond their ability. They need to be protected by the scheme, so back to LaFleur. Get the ball out, misdirection, screens, etc.

          The defense has to probably play their best game of the year, similar to at Minnesota, except imagine if Minn had a running back that day. Jam Kittle, smart run gaps. pressure the qb, and quality DB play. We can’t let the other WRs go off because we are just focused on the TE.

          And don’t turn the ball over. So yeah, basically we have to play our best game of the year, all around. But isn’t this the time for it anyway? Its definitely possible.

          1. PF4L January 17, 2020

            I’d agree with you Kzoo….but then we’d both be wrong … jk :)
            Like i mentioned, my comments about this game are born from watching the week 12 game. When i see different, i’ll believe different, my brother!. Truth is….i’d love to be eating crow come Sunday night

  4. Kato January 17, 2020

    Joey Bosa plays for the Chargers

    1. stiggy January 17, 2020

      Dont blame rob for that oversight as both Bosa brothers dominated the packers this year.

      1. PF4L January 17, 2020

        Lol….remember after the O line got hammered by the Chargers in Cali….the Packers adjusted their travel plans to go play San Fran, leaving on a different day……YEA….THAT was the problem, the travel day….lol

  5. Deepsky January 17, 2020

    The Packers were dominated because of a fumble early resulting in 7 points immediately for the 49ers and because Bulaga went out in the first quarter. On top of that, the Packers receivers dropped key 3rd down passes on several early drives. This all put the Packers in panic mode early and played right into the hands of the 49ers.
    The Packers cannot get down early or this game or it will end up exactly like the last one as the 49ers will tee off on Aaron Rodgers. The only hope the Packers have is to keep the game close by involving all the receivers, not just Adams, on short, quick passes, keeping the the game close, which would make Garopollo have to throw the ball. The only chance the Packers have to win this game would be for Garopollo to throw some picks and that won’t happen if the Packers get behind again.

  6. Howard January 17, 2020

    Rob, One odd stat, since you are a stat guy, regarding your comment “Combining the two numbers, SF ranked second (to the Pats) in least total yardage given up, while the Packers were a lowly eighteenth.”
    There are stats regarding opponents yards per point, and we all know points are the most important stat. At the end of the regular season for the stat, opponents yards per point NE was ranked #1, then #2 Buffalo, #3 KC, #4 Green Bay. The Titans were #7 and The 49ers were and still are #23. The 49ers have dropped considerable in that stat in the last 5 games of the regular season.
    At this point the only stat that really matters at games end is the final score.

    1. PF4L January 17, 2020

      ^last line^

    2. MJ January 18, 2020

      Thanks Hw! Interesting stat, though I can think of more than one way of reading into it. On one hand, it may imply that you hold the opposition to more drives until they score, but on the other hand it may mean you let them move downfield only to stiffen at the goal line. And it may even mean that the opponent starts with bad field positions (longer fields), either because of your own offense having marched down the field or because of your good punting team.
      It’s cool to see, but good and bad elements may contribute to move the stat on either direction.

      As an example, a defense that allows drives of 90+20+30+22 before a TD will rank the same as one that yielded 90+72 for the same score. Clearly one of them forced more stops.

      Higher yardage-per-point may be favorable (in general, it means you toughen up in the red zone or goal line), but a team-to-team comparison, especially if they have similar ypps, is of questionable insight, as exemplified above.

  7. PF4L January 17, 2020

    Rob is spot on concerning the use of the backs. He mentioned the half dozen times Jones got stuffed. I’m watching that game wondering why J. Williams only had one carry. Sorry to say, Jones is a finesse back, when anyone gets a solid hand on him, he’s done. Yes, he can skirt through weak arm reaches. But he has nowhere near the power to break tackles like J. Willy has. Why LeFleuer didn’t use Williams goal to go, amazes me.
    So now San Fran….Rob nailed it, get the backs involved in the passing game, screens, quick outs, whatever. The only way the Packers can beat the 9ers, is getting that ball out and minimizing the 9ers rush (bread and butter).
    It should be noted that Williams had more carrys against the 9ers, which i think is the smart move. Also true with LaFleur needing to be more creative with those play calls.
    I keep hearing about this top O line, excellent O line. But we can’t reach the goal line for 1 yard 6 out of 7 times against a weak run defense? Didn’t the O line struggle against the Chargers and 9ers? Or are they just excellent when not playing a team with a strong front?
    Lets see how good they are Sunday, because i think whoever wins at the line, wins this game.
    Gary Ellerson from the Big Show was scoffing at the fact Garopollo should never be able to beat Rodgers. What Gary……are they playing golf? Simple minded Gomer Gary doesn’t understand Rodgers has little to do with Garopollo’s performance. Maybe Gary thinks Rodgers was playing cornerback when he lit up our defense for a passer rating of 145, idk. Guys a jag. Gary Ellerson isn’t a has been in the NFL, he’s a never was.

  8. TyKo Steamboat January 17, 2020

    One thing I didn’t see in the article is the fact that Bulaga went down about 7-8 offensive plays into the game the last time we played the 40-Whiners. Alex Light (who?) had to try to block Bosa … this is why the Packers went out & grabbed Jared Veldheer midseason, which, by the way, may have been the difference between us beating or losing to the SeaCocks last week

    Having Bulaga/Veldheer is quietly a very big deal in helping us beat these goons

    All-in-all I like your “throw to the RBs” game plan.

    I also think we need to do what we did in week 1!!! As Tramon Williams said “We just wanted to make Mitch play quarterback, man” … Lets make Jimmy G play QB!!!! Put 8 in the box & make them throw!

  9. MJ January 18, 2020

    I’ve seen Garoppolo throw some questionable passes, dangerously flirting with interception, at least during the beginning of the season. Maybe he has cleaned that up?
    He was overconfident, same as Goff in his glory 2018 season. It is good that the guy trusts his own judgement and arm to drive the ball forwards, but when he thinks he can do that disregarding the defensive plan, that self-trust turns into recklessness, overconfidence and inflexiblility.
    Here’s hoping he throws some of those high-risk passes tomorrow.

    1. TyKo Steamboat January 18, 2020

      That’s why we need to put 8 n the box … play him like Trubisky

  10. Ferris January 18, 2020

    Maybe the Dee Ford curse will hold up. Some people are not meant to win a SB. All of the Vikings, Tony Gonzalez, Junior Seau, Randy Moss, Dan Marino and on and on. He lines up onside last year and KC is in the bowl.