49ers’ Top-Ranked Defense Can ‘Hide Its True Colors’

DeMeco Ryans

Getty DeMeco Ryans is disguising the 49ers' No. 1-ranked defense.

The San Francisco 49ers top the NFL in fewest yards allowed two games into the 2022 regular season. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is manufacturing great success with a unit missing a key veteran on the back end and still waiting for an infusion of youth up front.

Ryans’ defense is shutting down opponents as much through disguise and scheme as athleticism and brawn. One of the key traits of the system is the defense being able to “hide its true colors,” according to one NFL writer.

He’s pinpointed how Ryans has used a subtle tweak to solve a weakness in one of the coverages the 49ers used most often last season.

Ryans Has Added Key Wrinkle to Improved Pass Defense

In a comprehensive look at the state of modern pass defense, Diante Lee of The Athletic detailed how Ryans has improved the 49ers by adjusting their favored quarters (four deep) coverage. Lee noted Ryans’ “4-3 base scheme looks to hide its true colors with two high safeties and wide edge rushers (San Francisco ranked sixth in quarters coverage snaps against the pass in 2021).”

Offenses want to counter the quarters-heavy approach by “isolating the middle linebacker underneath, throwing into the flats or running posts into open airspace.”

Fortunately for the Niners, Ryans has devised a cunning remedy for this mode of attack: “Ryans solves this problem by rolling his weak-side safety down and playing Cover 3 to flood the middle of the field again. This approach is what I’d call a ‘weak-side rotation,’ where the weak safety plays a major role in the breadth of a defense’s coverage menu.”

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

Delve a little deeper and you’ll see the San Fran defense is also pacing the league in pass defense. The D’ has given up just 285 yards per game, breaking down to a mere 5.9 yards per attempt.

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

While the defensive backfield has coped admirably without Ward, the pass rush has also stayed strong, despite a quiet to star to life in the pros for Drake Jackson. The ex-USC edge was the Niners’ top pick in this year’s draft, but Jackson has mustered just one solo tackle and an assist so far.

Jackson was expected to refresh a defensive front needing some new blood, but as in the secondary, the 49ers have thrived thanks to unheralded players making a greater impact than expected.

Unheralded Players Leading 49ers’ Dominant Defense

Ryans’ schemes have made a difference, but so have the performances of players like Samson Ebukam. The former Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker doesn’t generate the hype of his fellow edge-rusher Nick Bosa, but Ebukam “is a disruptive force,” according to Jordan Elliott of SB Nation’s Niners Nation:

Ebukam has recorded one of the 49ers four sacks this season and he’s functioning at a high level in a pass-rush rotation that’s adding to the problems Ryans’ revolving coverages present to quarterbacks.

Those signal-callers who have time to throw often find it difficult to avoid Talanoa Hufanga on the back end. The all-action safety is gaining a ton of plaudits this year thanks to his mix of aggressive, downhill pursuit and smarts in space.

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

It’s fair to say Hufanga has exceeded expectations after replacing longtime starter Jaquiski Tartt. The 49ers are getting outstanding contributions from heady, versatile players who are making Ryans’ illusory system work.

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