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The 49ers have to break their one rule on defense

What if in order to save the 49ers defense, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have to destroy it?

From the beginning of their tenure, both John and Kyle have made no secret of their philosophy on that side of the football. At their core, both men believe success starts with getting pressure from the defensive line.

"Two of the first things [Kyle and I] talked about," Lynch said after drafting Nick Bosa in 2019, "Was finding our quarterback and finding the guys to knock him down."

For much of the roster rebuild, the 49ers have done that. They drafted Nick Bosa, they traded for Dee Ford, they had DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. Over the years they surrounded that core with supplemental players like Kevin Givens, Samson Ebukam, Clelin Ferrell, et. al. By and large, the strategy worked. The 49ers generated 218 sacks since 2019 (5th best in the NFL), and they went 54-29 in the regular season, and 8-4 in the playoffs. None of those four losses came before the NFC Championship Game, by the way. Clearly there's merit to their philosophy.

There's just one problem: The more important the games get, the less the NFL calls penalties.

And don't get me wrong - this isn't whining about missed calls against the 49ers. This applies to all teams equally.

The NFL realizes that it's in the entertainment business, and they realize that there's nothing entertaining about plays getting called back because of flags. This ideology is supported by most fans, who believe officials only impact the game by calling penalties - not by "letting them play."

CBS Sports Rules Analyst and former NFL official Gene Steratore summed it up nicely the week before Super Bowl LVIII on the Pat McAfee Show:

"We're calling the big stuff, boys. We're fishing for whales, not minnows. For these...this is different, man."

Compare that to how Steratore himself called games in the regular season. He took away this touchdown from Calvin Johnson on a technicality, and once used an index card to measure for a first down. Clearly in the playoffs, things were different.

Case in point: In the last 6 Super Bowls combined, there have only been 7 holding penalties.

So, if the NFL is going to "let them play" in the playoffs and even more-so in the Super Bowl, a great defensive line can be neutralized by offensive linemen allowed to hold. The 49ers would be better served focusing their investment on a part of their defense that can't be taken away by uncalled penalties.

Essentially, they'd be turning the defense on it's head. Instead of Nick Bosa and company taking pressure off the secondary by getting quick penetration, the secondary would make Bosa's life easier by locking down receivers and giving the pass rush more time to get home.

Luckily, the 49ers wouldn't have to overhaul their defense to make the switch. They already have some of the biggest pieces in place. Mooney Ward led the league in pass breakups in 2023. He's your CB1. They have Deommodore Lenoir, who can be a strong CB2 and switch to the slot when necessary. They will have an all-pro safety in Talanoa Hufanga next year and (hopefully) a rising star in Ji'Ayir Brown. They have two excellent coverage linebackers in Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. And they still have Nick Bosa on the defensive line.

It's way too early to know how the draft will play out, but I do think the 49ers are going to move up in the first round. They have 11 picks this year and they certainly don't have 11 spots on the roster that will be up for grabs. Here's hoping that when they do move up, John and Kyle are looking for a cornerback rather than a defensive lineman.


For more on this idea, check out today's Gold Standard Podcast!

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Mar 04

It's absolutely INSANE that a 15 yard penalty is a "minnow." If it's a minnow then make it a five yard penalty for the year... I don't understand the hierarchy of penalties? They called those stupid flinching false starts all day long in the same game they didn't call five or six clearly flagrant holding penalties.

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