DL Coach Jeff Zgonina Shares Vision for 49ers Defensive Line

Instincts and athleticism over diagnosis and reaction.

That appears to be the focus for the San Francisco 49ers defensive line in 2017, in Layman's terms, of course. Defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina explained that he wants his players to think less than they did a season ago.

In 2016, the 49ers ran a two-gap system, which required players to analyze the play post-snap before taking off in pursuit. This year, each guy on the line of scrimmage will be responsible for just one gap.

"Last year they were more readers," Zgonina said. "This defense puts you on an edge and lets you attack and use your athletic ability and use your length."

Keeping things simple could be especially beneficial for the young players on the roster. That includes 2016 first-round pick DeForest Buckner, who had the challenge of being a Day 1 starter as a rookie. Despite the steep learning curve, Buckner still racked up 73 tackles, six sacks and a spot on the PFWA All-Rookie Team.

"He's a powerful guy," Zgonina said. "I think he's going to do well in this system. He's just playing one gap. He's not reading."

Buckner's workload will be minimized in Year 2 as well in an effort to preserve his stamina throughout games. "DeFo" played well over 1,000 snaps last season and rarely came off the field. That assuredly won't be the case in 2017, nor will it be for any other player on the defensive line.

"I'm a rotation guy," Zgonina said. "I'm allowed to rotate guys as much as I want, and I will do that. I told those guys, 'You give me four-to-five plays full-tilt, I'm going to rotate you.' I believe in fresh bodies all the time. I don't like to see guys play more than 1,000 snaps in a season."

Beyond one-gapping and rotating, the other pillar of Zgonina's philosophy is the ability to play multiple spots on the d-line. Each player will be cross-trained accordingly.

"I've told all the guys, 'You've got to know at least two positions just because of the numbers on gameday.' I don't want to pigeonhole a guy at one spot."

Zgonina has a healthy mix of productive veterans and highly-touted young players at his disposal. With a new scheme and plenty of depth, last year's 32nd-ranked run defense should be vastly improved in 2017.

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