If you can’t beat ’em, copy ’em.
That seems to be the 49ers’ offseason motto as they reshape the franchise. Their model – in a number of areas – appears to be the Seattle Seahawks, who have won the last seven meetings between the teams.
The 49ers’ head coach-general manager structure, one in which the coach has control over the 53-man roster and the general manager has final say on the 90-man squad, is similar to the Seahawks’ arrangement.
The 49ers also have eyed a number of ex-Seahawks coaches for defensive coordinator and have zeroed in on one, Robert Saleh, who either has been part of Seattle’s coaching staff or ex-Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s Jacksonville Jaguars staff for the past six seasons.
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Could the 49ers, who have been assembling pieces for a 3-4 defensive scheme for the last decade, run a version of Seattle’s defense, which is a 4-3?
The short answer is yes because, as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll once put it, Seattle’s defense essentially is a 4-3 scheme that uses 3-4 personnel. Carroll’s teams also have fiddled with their alignments over the years, at times running what looks like a true 3-4 defense.
All of which is to say, there’s plenty of wiggle room for Saleh and his staff as they rework a San Francisco defense that was terrible last season and set all sorts of dubious franchise records. But if he wanted to run a true Seattle-like defense? For giggles, this is what it looks like and how the 49ers’ current components might fit:
“Leo” defensive end – This is the marquee position along the defensive front. The position essentially is the same as the “elephant” defensive end the 49ers employed in their heyday – Charles Haley, Chris Doleman, etc. (It’s no coincidence Carroll was San Francisco’s defensive coordinator in 1995-96). The “Leo” is the team’s best pass rusher and most athletic edge rusher. He plays on the weak side (non-tight end side) of the defense and usually goes against the opponent’s left tackle. Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril have played this role for the Seahawks. For the 49ers? Ahmad Brooks or Aaron Lynch or maybe even seldom-used Tank Carradine probably fit best. A high-round rookie draft pick, say Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett or Alabama’s Tim Williams, would be even more ideal.
Defensive tackle/nose tackle – Even though the Seahawks use a base 4-3, they still have a role for someone who lines up over the opposition’s center. This typically has been a shorter, stubbier player in Seattle’s system (think 6-foot-1, 310-pound Brandon Mebane). The best recent 49er for this position is Ian Williams, but he was released in October and his NFL future is very much up in the air due to recent injuries. The team’s top nose tackle from last season, Glenn Dorsey, is a pending free agent. Quinton Dial is an option, but at 6-5, he’s not a prototypical nose tackle, especially in this particular scheme.
Defensive tackle – This position should be the team’s top pass-rushing interior lineman. The 49ers will want to have Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner on the field, and they must figure out which is best for this spot vs. left defensive end. The guess here is that Buckner would play this position with Armstead at defensive end.
Left defensive end – This player lines up opposite the “Leo” and typically has been a bigger player who can stop the run.
Strong-side linebacker – In Seattle, the so-called SAM linebacker has been a de facto fifth defensive lineman who lines up over the tight end. The player must be strong enough to hold the edge on running plays but swift enough to cover tight ends at times in the passing game. Brooks fits this role best among the 49ers, but he would have to do more in coverage than he’s ever been required to do with the 49ers.
Middle linebacker – This has been Bobby Wagner’s role in Seattle. The position requires a smart, fast linebacker who calls the plays and ends up making a lot of tackles. The obvious fit in San Francisco is NaVorro Bowman, assuming he makes a full recovery from his Achilles’ injury.
Weak-side linebacker – This player doesn’t have to take on as many blocks as the other two linebackers but has to be good in coverage, especially on plays over the short middle. The 49ers signed Ray-Ray Armstrong to a two-year contract extension in December, and he’s currently the best candidate on the roster for this role.
Free safety – The Seahawks’ defense has been marked by an excellent free safety, Earl Thomas, who is fast, physical and instinctive enough to allow the other safety, Kam Chancellor, to play close to the line of scrimmage. This is a position Bradley had trouble reproducing in Jacksonville but one in which the 49ers seemingly have a good match in Jimmie Ward. The 49ers were adamant last season that Ward was best as a cornerback, and he played well in 10 starts at the position. They also plan to retain last season’s defensive backs coach, Jeff Hafley. But if the incoming staff truly is looking for a Seattle-like defense, Ward is by far their best option at this spot.
Strong safety – Chancellor has devastated the 49ers’ tight ends with huge, intimidating hits the last few years, and San Francisco would love someone similar to terrorize pass catchers and running backs. Smart, reliable Eric Reid closer to the line of scrimmage this past season and would be a safe choice. But Jaquiski Tartt is faster, more dynamic and would be the bolder option.
Cornerbacks – Seattle’s cornerbacks have been big, long-armed players who are good at press coverage and assigned to take away the opponent’s wide receivers from the hashmarks outward. Rashard Robinson, who had a strong rookie season in 2016, fits this mold perfectly. The 49ers have several other players – Tramaine Brock, Dontae Johnson, Marcus Cromartie – who could fit at the other spot as well. They also should have third-round draft pick Will Redmond, a potential starter on the outside or at nickel cornerback, healthy this offseason.