Exhibit A when documenting how feeble the 49ers’ run defense was in 2016: Fozzy Whittaker.
The Panthers backup running back never had surpassed 45 rushing yards in his four-year NFL career but ran for 100 yards in the teams’ Week 2 meeting in which Carolina finished with a season-high – by a wide margin – 529 yards of offense.
The run-oriented Panthers enter Sunday’s rematch with more ground resources than they had vs. the 49ers a year ago, including a healthy workhorse runner in Jonathan Stewart and a pair of quick-footed rookies, Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, capable of lining up at tailback or receiver on any given play. McCaffrey in particular has received plenty of hype this offseason with his Twitter handle, Run CMC, appearing on everything from T-shirts to baby onesies.
It will be an immediate test of just how much San Francisco’s run defense has improved from last season when Whittaker was one of 11 starting tailbacks to hit the 100-yard mark and the 49ers gave up more yards than any other squad in franchise history.
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This year, simple mathematics suggest they will be better.
Their new defensive scheme essentially places five players along the line of scrimmage and sticks a strong safety, Eric Reid, closer to the ball on running downs so that he acts as a quasi linebacker.
“It’s another guy in the box,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said of Reid. “Not all the time, but we have (plays) where he’s able to come down and make it an eight-man box. And teams will still try to run the ball against an eight-man box because it opens up their passing game. And if we stop the run, then they’ll have only one way to go, and that’s to pass the ball.”
The 49ers’ personnel also has been bolstered in key areas.
They finished the 2016 season without Bowman and defensive lineman Arik Armstead, both of whom were injured early on. Inside linebacker – a team’s primary run stoppers – was particularly troublesome last year; the 49ers started five different combinations during the season.
This year, Bowman is healthy again and the team drafted Reuben Foster in the first round. They used the No. 3 overall pick on a defensive lineman, Solomon Thomas, giving them three former first rounders – Armstead and DeForest Buckner are the others – in their defensive-line rotation.
The defense is modeled after the one used by the Seattle Seahawks, who have finished in the Top 10 in run defense for the last six seasons.
Linebacker Brock Coyle spent the last three seasons with the Seahawks while defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was an assistant in Seattle from 2011-13. Both cautioned that the 49ers’ defense won’t look exactly like the Seahawks’.
But Coyle said the overarching quality – its aggressive nature – has carried over. With so many players on the line of scrimmage, most defensive linemen are able to attack one gap in the offensive line as opposed to last year when they were responsible for two gaps and had to analyze a play as it developed.
Saleh has described the style as “all gas, no brakes.” Coyle called it “trying to be a violent professional.”
“I think about the Minnesota game in the preseason where you really saw our defense really bring to life what Saleh’s been emphasizing,” Coyle said. “And that’s running and hitting, all gas no brakes. Arik Armstead gets a sack, Reuben hitting (opponents), Bowman being the great leader he is. That’s a great start for what we want to build. And it’s exciting to see what it’s going to continue to be.”
One of the game’s storylines involves McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick in the draft, and the innovative ways the Panthers can use him.
Saleh, however, said the 49ers have not obsessed over the possibilities. If the defense operates as it’s supposed to, it should provide answers to whatever Carolina throws its way.
“You never want to chase ghosts,” he said. “… Will they use him? I’ll bet a lot of money they’re going to use him in many creative ways. It’s our job to understand that it’s not about the player that’s performing. It’s about the structure of the defense and how we defend the entire field.”
Said Bowman when asked about McCaffrey: “We’re not going to make it that big of a deal. He’s going to come out and try to make a statement in his first game in the NFL, and it’s our job on defense to not let that happen.”