The regular season is a little over two weeks away. There is still one more preseason game left to play and a roster to finalize, but we have seen all that we are going to see of the starters this preseason.
While fans still haven’t gotten to see exactly what the team will look like this year, the limited snaps we saw from the starters gave us some glimpses.
One of the things that excites me about the team, particularly on the defensive side, is how well the pass rush and secondary are working together to disrupt offenses.
We saw this when the starters took the field for the first quarter of the game against the 49ers last week. The starting defense put on a show, harassing Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers starting offense.
In just the 16 snaps the starters were on the field they forced an interception, had a strip sack and near recovery, and nearly had a pick six as they held Garoppolo to 1 of 6 passing for zero yards and an interception.
Let’s take a closer look to see what could be in store for us this season.
On the opening drive of the game, the defensive line had already batted down a pass on a play in which the receiver was open, so we already began to see the units working together to help each other out.
The third-down play that followed was an even better example.
The 49ers offense is running a concept that we have seen before and broke down in a previous piece.
This is a variation of the slot fade where the offense runs a fade to the numbers, combined with a hook outside. If the defense is in zone, it will stretch the corner out to try and top the fade, leaving the hook open underneath.
We saw this on the play we examined from Shanahan’s offense last year. The corner gets extended out, and it’s an easy throw to the hook.
This play, however, Denver is in man coverage, 2-man where defenders are manned up across the board with two safeties over the top.
The offense gets the match-up they want with Josey Jewell on the running back.
Now on the broadcast, the announcer kept referring to Garoppolo’s throw as a 50/50 ball and assumed he was targeting the receiver. However, upon looking closer and seeing Kyle Shanahan’s comments after the game, it’s clear Garoppolo was trying to hit the running back on the fade.
He wants to put it right out in front, close to the red circle below.
However, while the running back is open and with an accurate throw it is likely a completion, Garoppolo’s throw is altered by excellent pressure applied by Bradley Chubb.
Because of the pressure and hit, the throw is off and behind, right into the waiting arms of Isaac Yiadom, who was playing his hook route.
You might say this is exactly how they drew it up when putting the defense together. John Elway a few weeks ago talked about how the plan is to get secondary players facing the ball more so they’re in position to make plays on it.
“They’ll be facing the quarterback a little bit more,” Elway said. “We’ve had more picks and tipped balls that have been picked more this camp than we have in a long time. I think Vic just gets them looking at the ball.”
Kareem Jackson described it perfectly when he was asked about some interceptions he had made in practice:
As a defense, [it’s about] guys being in the right place at the right time. I was fortunate enough to be at the right place today and to make a couple of plays, so I’ve got to continue to build on that.”
Yiadom was in the right place and the right time, and did a good job seeing and making the play.
The secondary playing with their eyes on the quarterback and a ferocious pass rush is a great recipe for forcing turnovers.
The next one was a play made by De’Vante Bausby on the other side of the field that was also affected by pressure.
The offense motions the outside receiver into a reduced split stack, at the top of the image below. Bausby backs up and is playing off because he knows the offense is likely to try and cross he and Harris up with the stacked receivers.
The first thing that sticks out is everyone understands where their help is and, more importantly, where their help is not.
Denver is in a split field coverage that functions like man once the receivers break. Bausby is responsible for the outside of the #1 and any vertical route of #1, which is why he is playing off, and keying on anything outside and underneath.
He knows Harris is responsible for the #2, even if he goes vertical, which he eventually does, and that Justin Simmons (circled in blue below) is playing a robber technique inside.
This means Bausby is free to break on anything outside and underneath as long as the receiver isn’t going vertical, he has help everywhere else, which allows him to be aggressive.
It’s 3rd down, so the offense needs to throw past the sticks, or be able to catch it short and run, so once Bausby sees the return route from his man, he is locked in and breaking to take the ball away.
Garoppolo makes a poor choice on the route and probably should have taken a shot at the corner route developing behind Bausby, but once again the pressure is coming fast and likely affects his decision to try and get the ball out quick.
This is another example of complimentary football. An assignment sound secondary ready to capitalize on QB mistakes, and a pass rush that is all about forcing QBs into making mistakes.
With a little more concentration, that is a pick-six and interception #2 on the day.
This time the secondary returns the favor and holds the QB’s eyes just long enough for the rush to get home. Bradley Chubb makes a great move off the edge to get home for the strip.
Without the All-22, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on in the secondary on this one, but you can see how this can play out.
Fangio’s disguise on the back end gives QBs just enough pause for the rushers to get home, and on the flip side, the rush is forcing the QBs into early throws and mistakes that the secondary is just waiting to capitalize on.
I can’t wait to see this defense in action once the regular season hits.