Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh
Defensive Coordinator: Vic Fangio
Base Defensive Alignment: 3-4
Base Run Fits: 2 Gap
Base Coverage: Quarters
The 2013 49ers defense is a fun group to watch. The play of ILB's Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman is what really makes this defense tick, but the guys up front like OLB's Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, as well as beastly DE Justin Smith, make life even more difficult for opposing offensive lines, in both the run and pass game. However, with Aldon Smith (suspension), Bowman (injury), and NT Glenn Dorsey (Injury) out for the game, there will be several very significant pieces the 49ers will be looking to replace in Sunday's game.
When I studied the 49ers defense, I wanted to learn a few specific things about the group. Rather than drawing up the base coverages (Cover 3, Cover 2, Cover 1, Quarters, Cover 10 etc) that every NFL team plays every week, and focusing on those types of things, I wanted to focus on somethings we've seen in the early stages of the season from Scott Linehan's offense, and how this 49er defense may react to them.
Covering the slot
One of the focuses for Scott Linehan through the off season and training camp has been utilizing different players in the slot to create difficult situations for the players the opponent uses to cover the slot. Having lots of options for the slot, means that based on how the defense decides to play it, you can exploit that using different skill sets.
Here we see the Colts lined up in 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) personnel, in an "I Left Slot" formation. San Francisco counters with their base 3-4 defensive personnel. In this instance SF has covered the inside WR by simply rolling the open side safety out over that guy, while the near side CB has stayed home.
In this case we see Seattle lined up in 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) personnel, lined up in a 2x2 formation, which again SF counters with base 3-4 personnel. In this case, with two receiving threats on each side, SF doesn't roll the coverage to the slot receiver, but instead widens the weakside OLB over the slot guy combining with the CB and safety to create a 3 on 2 look on that side of the ball.
Running back motioned out wide/to the slot
Whether it's lead back DeMarco Murray, or COP back Lance Dunbar, we've have seen an early emphasis on motioning RBs out of the backfield to try to create mismatches in the passing game.
Here we see the Colts again in 11 personnel, and have motioned RB Ahmad Bradshaw out of the back field and aligned him in the slot to the right. To counter this look, in their base personnel with 3 receiving threats on the opposite side, SF has again widened the OLB over the RB.
In this image we see the Colts again in 11 personnel with Bradshaw motioned wide left, outside of the wide receiver in his "Nasty" (reduced) split. To counter this look with their nickel personnel (5 DBs), the CB has widened over the top of Bradshaw, while ILB Patrick Willis has pushed outside over WR Darius Heyward-Bey.
This is an example of a five man nickel pressure scheme used by the 49ers against the Saints in 2013. This pressure features both ILBs in the rush, with ROLB Aldon Smith playing the "peel" technique to cover Darren Sproles when the RB releases into the route. This scheme, while appearing simple, puts a lot of pressure on the right side of the Saints offensive line, as all three blockers, the center, right guard, and right tackle have long reaches to get to their specific man, and with a player like OLB Ahmad Brooks coming off the edge that is a big task for sure.
So what does all of this mean for this Sunday's Cowboys/49ers matchup? In 2013, Fangio played alot of base personnel even against 3 WR sets, relying on the ability of the elite ILB duo of Navarro Bowman, and Patrick Willis, to secure the underneath and interior parts of the field. With Bowman out with an injury, and first round pick Jimmie Ward as the slot CB, I wonder if we may see more nickel personnel. However, based on what we see above, I believe there will be plenty of opportunity inside for guys like Cole Beasley, Gavin Escobar, and Dez Bryant. If Fangio uses Ward early and often in the slot, the size and strength mismatch with Escobar or Bryant should give the Cowboys an advantage. However, if they use a safety or linebacker to cover inside, Beasley or Bryant both bring the quickness and athleticism to exploit that matchup. This is exactly why Linehan has emphasized using so many different players inside. I would also expect to see the RBs motion out wide of Bryant very early in the game to determine the 49ers reaction to set up looks later in the game.