The 49ers got a good look Saturday at how they could improve their pass rush after struggling to bother opposing quarterbacks throughout 2017.
It came on the first third down of the preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts, when the elusive Andrew Luck dropped back to pass. The 49ers ran a two-man stunt on the left side of the field between Solomon Thomas and Cassius Marsh, with Thomas starting inside and veering outside. Thomas wound up hitting Luck but didn’t take him to the ground.
Newcomer Jeremiah Attaochu was credited with the sack after coming from the other side of the field, but it was Thomas’ initial pressure that prevented Luck from escaping. It exemplified the team’s new ethos when it comes to rushing the quarterback: Do it as a team.
The coaching staff felt a change was needed after they thought the message got muddled last season, which showed in the results. The 49ers sacked opposing quarterbacks at the seventh-worst rate in the NFL, which led to finishing 30th in preventing opponents from converting on third down.
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“It’s the elimination of gray area, making everything black and white and showing them the exact picture that needs to be shown and exactly what it’s supposed to look like,” said defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. “It’s been a collective effort to make sure that our wording is correct, that we’re all on the same page in how we communicate with them and that everyone is coaching the exact same things, no different than the rest of the scheme.”
That means running more designed plays for the defensive line to bother quarterbacks, rather than relying on players to win their individual matchups. That’s been an emphasis under new assistant coach Chris Kiffin, the son of longtime coordinator Monte, who was brought in to specialize in improving the pass rush.
The 49ers finished with just one sack in Indianapolis, though the coaching staff thought it was effective. Luck led the Colts in rushing during his playing time in the first half, in part because he was forced to escape a collapsing pocket. He ran for 27 yards on four carries, all coming on botched passing plays.
“Watching that whole game, I was pleased with our rush,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I thought we affected the quarterback and stuff. Obviously, you’d like more sacks than one, but I thought we pushed that pocket well. I thought we had the opportunity to get more than one, we just didn’t come through with it.”
Shanahan mentioned a third-and-13 play in which Luck eluded Arik Armstead rushing from left defensive end. Armstead beat his man and got to Luck quickly, but Luck escaped and scrambled for a first down. He threw a touchdown to tight end Eric Ebron on the following snap.
“I thought collectively that was one of our best rushes of the game, too,” Shanahan said. “If we rush like that every week and we get pressure on the quarterback like we did, I’ll be happy.”
Added DeForest Buckner, who’s expected to be the team’s leading sack artist: “I think we just got to really work on the finishing part. We left a lot of opportunities out there. But as a whole, I think we’ve come a long way (from) a rush standpoint.”