The defensive line has dominated the conversation surrounding the San Francisco 49ers offseason. Acquiring Dee Ford via trade with the Kansas City Chiefs and subsequently drafting Nick Bosa with the second-overall pick has everyone eager to see the 49ers revamped pass rush.
Just how many sacks will Ford and Bosa rack up in 2019? How will their presence benefit DeForest Buckner and other inside rushers? Will that trio provide a noticeable benefit for the secondary?
Those questions, to varying degrees, will determine much of San Francisco’s overall success in the upcoming season. That’s why there’s such a keen interest in new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. John Lynch has said he expects the group to be a “dominant force” in 2019. The 49ers tasked Kocurek with making that a reality.
The high-energy coach said he wants his guys to play “with their hair on fire.”
“Aggressive (and) physical,” Kocurek said of his goals for the d-line. “A group where you see four defensive linemen on the field pursuing the ball wherever it’s at on the field. (We’re) trying to be the hardest playing position group in the National Football League. That’s what we strive for every single day.”
San Francisco will deploy more (but not exclusively) wide-9 defensive fronts in 2019. That’s been the key catchphrase of the offseason, and it essentially means there will be more spacing between each defensive lineman. A 9-tech defensive end plays outside the tight end, opposed to last year when the 49ers ends lined up outside the tackle (5- or 6-tech).
Kocurek has always utilized this front because of the benefit it offers against the run and pass.
“(Against) teams that like to get to the perimeter, you can set a physical edge in the run game,” Kocurek said. “It does give you a little bit better angle to rush the passer.”
The spacing in a wide-9 removes the role of a traditional nose tackle. San Francisco will occasionally have someone line up directly over the center (0-tech), but most of the 49ers interior defensive lineman will line up over the guard (2- or 2i-tech if he's shaded just inside the guard).
“It’s not the traditional nose (tackle) that everyone in the NFL envisions – the 6-foot-1, 350-pound dude,” Kocurek said. “Ours is a little different. We utilize explosion and quickness.”
Kocurek tabbed D.J. Jones, Sheldon Day and Jullian Taylor who fit that bill. They’re not the classic two-gap, block eating nose tackles, but they possess the explosion and quickness that Kocurek referred to in order to be disruptive. Kentavius Street will also get some work in that role. Those are all players who will have a chance to earn roles on base downs.
But when it comes to passing situations, that’s when Kocurek will bring in the horses. A four-man front of Ford – Buckner – Solomon Thomas – Bosa should be a staple on third downs for San Francisco.
Beyond the aggression Kocurek expects from the 49ers defensive line, he also hopes to simplify the game for his players. Dee Ford noted that he expects to drop into coverage less than he did with the Chiefs. Solomon Thomas said his role has been simplified to “seeing a green light and go.”
All of this sounds like the formula that will turn San Francisco’s defensive front into one of the NFL’s most daunting groups. The collection of talent – and overall investment – is there. The 49ers hope the production won't be too far behind.