The San Francisco 49ers bolstered their defensive line in this year’s draft with the addition of defensive tackle/end, DeForest Buckner. Buckner spent four years at the University of Oregon, where he tallied up 18 sacks, 232 tackles, and 36 tackles for loss. Buckner will be joining former Oregon teammate, Arik Armstead to form a respectable front three and hopefully give the Niners a much needed boost up front. A season ago, the Niners allowed 20 rushing touchdowns, tied for 32nd in all of football. They recorded just 28 sacks, something they haven’t done in the last four seasons. From 2011-2013 when the Niners were winning 11 plus games a year, they were extremely dominant in the trenches. The additions of these two defensive lineman will give the Niners versatility up front as they look to reform order in the trenches.
Holes Up Front a Season Ago
In 2015, the Niners gave up 100 yards on the ground in half of their games played. In their second game against Seattle, they allowed 255 yards on the ground, the most given up all season long by the team. Seattle running back Thomas Rawls got the bulk of the carries in this game. He rushed for 209 yards on 30 carries and added a rushing touchdown as well.
On this run, Rawls scampers off the weak side of the formation for 18 yards. It’s a basic misdirection counter trap play which fools the Niners front seven. San Francisco is in their 2-4-5 (two down lineman, four linebackers, and five defensive backs) nickel defense. Number 92, defensive end/tackle Quinton Dial, lines up in a two gap technique over left guard Justin Britt. Britt blocks down and away from the designed hole for Rawls to run through. Dial moves along with him and is out of position to make a clean tackle. Dial is late coming off the block as Rawls runs right past him.
The tight end, number 82 Luke Wilson, is motioned back and forth. At the snap of the ball, he pulls back over the weak side, kicking out inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. On the backside of the run, right guard number 64, J.R. Sweezy traps outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks. Defensive tackle number 64, Mike Purcell, gets caught up in a downhill block from center number 65, Patrick Lewis. Niners defensive lineman Purcell and Dial are a combined 621 pounds. And although Purcell was not a starter for most of last year, Armstead and Buckner combined are 38 pounds lighter than Purcell and Dial, and add nearly six inches of height too.
At Oregon, the duo between Armstead and Buckner caused havoc. Here against Ohio State in the BCS National Championship game, Buckner and Armstead limited former Ohio State and now Buffalo Bills quarterback, Cardale Jones. A designed quarterback draw with a trap element inserted, Jones fakes the sweep to running back Ezekiel Elliott and plows forward for a minimal gain. The left guard number 65 Pat Elflein, pulls to the strong side of the formation at the snap of the ball, but the defender runs right past him. There’s two key contributors for Oregon on this play, and you can guess who they are. Buckner lines up in a five technique over the left tackle’s outside shoulder. From there he explodes off the ball, penetrating through the tight end who’s not match for him. His outside leverage forces Jones back inside, sending him right into the open arms of Armstead. Armstead finished him off along with another fellow lineman.
The quarterback draw is a compliment to the read option; these two plays were used in back to back downs multiple times all season long to fool opponents against Ohio State. The Niners got a whole lot better along their defensive line with the addition of Buckner. While teamed with Armstead, the two are relentless players and work together to create disruption in the backfield.
On this play against Washington, Buckner shows off his high motor. On a trap lead play, Buckner comes from the backside and makes an excellent stop. He lines up in a three technique on the weak side of the offense, shoves off the left tackle, and brings the running back down for a minimal gain.
Outside Penetration and Speed Dominates
At 291 lbs and 292 lbs respectively, these two players aren’t necessarily gap eaters. But, they certainly get to the ball carrier, doing so quickly and effectively. Both Buckner and Armstead have good closing speed on ball carriers which makes me think their best fit is outside in a three or five technique, positions both played at the college level.
Here against Ohio State again in the BCS Championship game, Armstead shows off his athletism and flow as he makes his way to to the ball carrier, limiting the gain and stopping him short of the first down.
H-back Jalin Marshall receives the pop pass from Jones at full speed. He cuts up field looking for room, only to be greeted by Armstead at the line of scrimmage. Armstead is lined up in a three technique between the right guard and tackle. Marshall looks for a cutback lane off the pitch to pick up a chunk of yards. Armstead does a great job shedding off his blocker and getting his arms onto Marshall. His outside leverage on plays like this is why I think his best fit is outside.
In this run against the Cardinals last year, running back Chris Johnson bursts through the C gap between the tackle and the tight end. The designed run was supposed to be an inside run, but Johnson bounces it outside as soon as he sees the gaping hole between right tackle Bobby Massie and tight end Jermaine Gresham. Johnson picked up 30 yards on the play and shed three tacklers.
Niner defensive lineman number 62, Tony Jerod-Eddie lines up in a four technique over Massie. At the snap, Jerod-Eddie gets mauled by Massie, as Massie fires off the line sustaining his block on Jerod-Eddie and steering him away from the ball carrier. Jerod-Eddie doesn’t have the speed or athletism to counter Massie’s block. But both Armstead and Buckner can bully around offensive lineman with their quickness, on top of their other skills.
Back in 2014 against Utah, Buckner lines up in a three technique between the left guard and tackle. He absorbs contact from the guard initially but gives a little shove and quickly tracks down the speedy quarterback. It’s this lateral movement and ability to keep up with athletic and quick ball carriers that make him so deadly as a defender.
The Niners will most definitely benefit from plays like this from Buckner in 2016. His speed and ability to quickly shed lineman will go a long way at the NFL level. With the exception of maybe Armstead, the Niners didn’t have a player on their roster last year that could make these types of plays on the defensive side of the ball.
Increase in Quarterback Pressure
Last year, the Niners had just 28 sacks as a unit. That ranked 29th in all of football as only three teams had fewer sacks. They didn’t have a single player with double digit sacks, nor did they have a player reach seven sacks. Linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch led the team in sacks, each with 6.5. Buckner’s sack total really shot up in 2015, when he tallied on 6.5 sacks from 2014 with Oregon. Armstead has never been a guy with great sack numbers but had two last year in minimal playing time for the Niners.
Among other reasons, a lack of pressure on the quarterback resulted in opposing quarterbacks averaging nearly 274 yards passing per game against San Francisco last year. Here against the Steelers last season, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 369 yards, three touchdowns to no interceptions, and was sacked the same amount of times I was that Sunday: zero. On this catch and run to Antonio Brown, the Niners dialed up absolutely no pressure. They brought four and got no where near Roethlisberger. The coverage on the back end isn’t spectacular, as safety Eric Reid takes a poor angle to cover Brown, but Roethlisberger could have picked a dozen roses sitting back in the pocket for that long.
This issue will be reduced while Buckner and Armstead are employed in the trenches together. The duo combine for a pass rush that utilizes both their speed and strength. In this clip, the two are imposing their will against Ohio State’s offensive line. Armstead is in a three technique between the right guard and tackle. Buckner also is in a three technique on the opposite side. Armstead is double teamed by the guard and tackle, but still fights his way to collapse the pocket. Buckner gets an amazing release off the ball (just watch in slow motion by clicking the minus button) and swims his way through the left tackle.
They collapsed the pocket, forcing the quarterback to roll outside. While neither recorded a sack on this play, it’s the pressure that will really rattle up opposing quarterbacks.
Against Jameis Winston and Florida State in the Rose Bowl, Oregon really rattled Winston by applying pressure, and flushing him out of the pocket. A great pocket passer like Winston, being flushed out and on the run is not where he wants to be throwing the football. Armstead lines up in a two technique over the right guard, and bull rushes his way over him. He gives him a gnarly right arm and sends him right into the lap of Winston.
Winston is able to evade the sack, but is forced to rollout and make a throw on the move. He ends up throwing it away. Plays like this are Armstead’s bread and butter, he’s an effective speed bull rusher and can give offensive linemen fits with this move. Buckner applies pressure on the backside of the play, giving Winston no room to step up. Although this doesn’t result in a sack, it’s also an effective rush and something Niner fans can look forward to in years to come from the duo.
Against true freshman Jake Browning last season, Buckner had a field day against the Huskies. For most of the game, he was double teamed but at times, was even triple teamed. This was one of his multiple sacks that he had in the game. He lines up once again in a three technique and bulldozes his way through the right guard. He gets another great release off the ball and gets to Browning before the play even develops.
Buckner and Armstead are both 6’7″ in height. Their long reach causes disruption while opposing quarterbacks look for an open target.
On quick throws and screen plays, when pressure is neutralized and can’t be applied, swatting down balls is extremely effective and is a great luxury for both of these players. Here the quarterback is looking for a quick slant, and instead is deflected by Buckner.
Again versus Washington, Buckner disrupts a pattern between Browning and his intended target. Browning looks for a quick in route but is forced to make an errant throw because of Buckner. Buckner doesn’t deflect this, but his arms don’t allow for Browning to make a perfect throw on the money.
When on the field together, Buckner and Armstead are dominant linemen that will cause woes for offenses in both the running and passing game. These two players compliment each other, and with Armstead playing side by side once again to Buckner, you will see his play elevate. While there are questions at other positions on the Niners roster, defensive line is solidified for now with these two young, talented players.