The 49ers’ senior defense can ‘hide their true colors’

DeMeco Ryans


DeMeco Ryans camouflages the 49ers’ No. 1 defense.

The San Francisco 49ers lead the NFL in fewest yards, allowing two games in the 2022 regular season. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is finding great success with a unit that lacks a key veteran in the back end and still relies on an infusion of youth up front area waiting.

Ryan’s defenses take down opponents with disguise and scheming, as well as athleticism and brawn. One of the key features of the system, according to an NFL writer, is the defense’s ability to “hide their true colors.”

He revealed how Ryans made a subtle change to address a weakness in one of the covers the 49ers used most last season.

Ryans added Key Wrinkle for improved pass defense

In a comprehensive look at the state of modern pass defense, Diana Lee of the athlete detailed how Ryans improved the 49ers by adjusting the coverage of their favorite quarters (four deep). Lee noted that Ryan’s “4-3 base scheme seems to hide his true colors with two high safeties and wide edge rushers (San Francisco ranked sixth in quarterly coverage against the pass in 2021).”

Offensives want to counteract the quarter-heavy approach by “isolating the middle linebacker underneath, throwing into the flats or running posts into open airspace.”

Luckily for the Niners, Ryans has developed a nifty antidote to this type of attack: “Ryans solves this problem by rolling his backup down on the weak side and playing Cover 3 to swamp the middle of the field again. I would describe this approach as “weak side rotation” where weak security plays an important role in the breadth of a defense’s cover menu.”

Lee’s analysis is technical, but the proof of the merits of Ryan’s adjustments comes from the numbers. The 49ers have conceded the fewest yards in the league after two weeks, per 49ers web zoneciting statistics from 49ers Communications:

Dive a little deeper and you’ll see that the San Fran defense also drives the league in pass defense. The D’ has given up just 285 yards per game and collapses on a mere 5.9 yards per attempt.

For juicier stats, enjoy three interceptions and four sacks, with only two through-air touchdowns allowed. Those numbers make good reading, especially since standout safetyman Jimmie Ward has yet to see the field while he deals with a hamstring injury.

While the defensive backfield did admirably without Ward, the pass rush also remained strong despite a quiet start in the pros for Drake Jackson. The ex-USC fringe was the Niners’ top pick in this year’s draft, but Jackson just rallied a solo tackle and one assist so far.

Jackson was expected to refresh a defensive front in need of some new blood, but as in high school, the 49ers have thrived thanks to unheralded players who had a bigger impact than expected.

Unheralded players lead the 49ers’ dominant defense

Ryan’s plans made a difference, but so did the performances of players like Samson Ebukam. The former Los Angeles Rams fullback isn’t generating the hype of fellow edge rusher Nick Bosa, but according to Ebukam “he’s a disruptive force.” Jordan Elliott of SB Nation’s Niners Nation:

Ebukam has one recorded four sacks by the 49ers this season and he’s functioning at a high level in a pass-rush rotation that contributes to the problems Ryans’ rotating covers pose for quarterbacks.

Those signal callers who have time to throw often find it difficult to dodge Talanoa Hufanga on the back end. The all-action safety is getting a ton of praise this year thanks to its mix of aggressive, downhill pursuit and smart space.

Hufanga’s cleverness was examined and praised NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger. He began his film study by looking at how Hufanga baited Justin Fields into an interception against the Chicago Bears in Week 1. Baldinger ended the analysis by highlighting how well wide receiver Tyler Lockett’s safety stayed in man coverage against the Seattle Seahawks a week later.

It’s fair to say that Hufanga has exceeded expectations after replacing longtime starter Jaquiski Tartt. The 49ers receive stellar input from intoxicating, well-rounded players who make the Ryans’ illusory system work. The 49ers’ senior defense can ‘hide their true colors’

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