The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 49ers’ gambling defense knows when to hold ’em. That’s what makes it so good.

San Francisco defensive end Arik Armstead, a key part of the 49ers' formidable defensive front, celebrates after his team's game-winning field goal Saturday night in Green Bay. (Matt Marton/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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On one of the most important snaps of the season Saturday night, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans called for a change-up. Usually, Ryans likes to trust his talented front to get pressure, and he doesn’t often blitz, even on third down — even on third and long. But late in the fourth quarter at snowy Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers faced third and 11 and Ryans brought pressure with a safety — his fourth blitz in 54 plays that day, according to TruMedia.

Perhaps sensing San Francisco collapsing the pocket, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers locked onto wideout Davante Adams, who was double-covered downfield. Looking long made sense — the 49ers are among the league’s worst against deep passes — but Rodgers overlooked Allen Lazard wide open across the middle and overthrew Adams. The Packers punted; San Francisco drove for the winning field goal.

“The way that he’s called games, especially in this late part of the season — I mean, it’s unreal,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said of Ryans. “Sometimes you got to take chances, and when it turns out you build so much confidence in your coach, and you want to play that much harder for him.”

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In Sunday’s NFC championship matchup with the Los Angeles Rams, such unpredictability could again be required of Ryans and his defense. The 49ers have an effective offense despite lacking an elite quarterback and Coach Kyle Shanahan’s faith in the run knows no bounds, but this team does not want a repeat of its previous performance against the Rams: In Week 18, needing a win to make the playoffs, San Francisco trailed 17-3 at halftime before clawing back for a 27-24 victory in overtime.

In both wins over the Rams this season, Ryans’s defense has had a clear blueprint. Stop the run — it allowed 116 yards combined in the two games — and force quarterback Matthew Stafford to throw against mostly zone coverage. This highlights the battle between the Rams’ stout offensive line and the 49ers’ tenacious defensive line, which tilted San Francisco’s way in its Week 18 victory.

San Francisco’s defensive front four is largely unchanged from the unit that went to the Super Bowl in February 2020. The constants are star end Nick Bosa, tackle D.J. Jones and Arik Armstead. The team replaced DeForest Buckner, whom it traded to Indianapolis that offseason, by drafting Javon Kinlaw, but in Week 5, the 49ers put Kinlaw on injured reserve with a knee injury. Ryans shifted Armstead inside and told reporters the “unselfish” move helped the line sustain its level of play.

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It also helps that Bosa, who led the league in double-team rate according to Next Gen Stats, still was able to generate 32 quarterback hits.

“We’ve gotten stronger as the year has gone,” Shanahan said of his pass rush. “I thought we did a hell of job versus them last game, which was huge for us, especially in that second half.”

Facing the Rams, Ryans has been particularly content to trust his line. He sent an extra rusher on just 12.3 percent of dropbacks in the two games against Los Angeles, nearly 10 points lower than the regular season rate (21, 22nd in the league), in part because Stafford shreds blitzes. When the 49ers dared to blitz him this year, Stafford completed 8 of 9 passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns while taking one sack. By Expected Points Added, a metric that gives context to yards, Stafford has been better against the blitz this season than any quarterback since Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes in 2018.

On Sunday, Ryans can be creative by stunting his defensive linemen to create one-on-one matchups, as he did against Green Bay — using tilted fronts, such as putting three of the four linemen on one side of the center. Ryans also could rotate coverages after the snap with the team’s three experienced, versatile defensive backs (K’Waun Williams, Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward). It’s unlikely Stafford will encounter many surprises.

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“Before the snap, there are some intricacies, but a lot of it is pretty straight forward,” Stafford said Wednesday. “They’re going to let their guys go out there and play fast. That’s their M.O. Their guys attack up front, attack on the back end, do a great job against the run and as far as keeping the pass game in front of them as well. It’s about execution for us.”

For Stafford, that means recognizing what Rodgers did not. The reason Lazard was open on Green Bay’s final play was because the 49ers’ secondary busted the coverage. In a game where the opponents are intimately familiar with each other, it figures to be about who gets to the spot first: a 49ers pass rusher or a Stafford pass.