When the 49ers play their first exhibition game on Aug. 10 against the Dallas Cowboys, fans may notice a different look to the San Francisco defense.
This season, coordinator Robert Saleh has adopted a “Wide 9” alignment, which most notably puts the strong-side defensive end a couple of yards outside the opposing tight end rather than on the inside. The other defensive end – on the weak side – also will be split out wider.
As Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat noted recently, the alignment is designed to allow the defensive ends to better contain runs to the outside. The previous alignment was designed to better attack inside running plays.
Saleh believes the style of play by the two defensive ends – expected to be first-round pick Nick Bosa and former Chiefs pass-rushing star Dee Ford – will be great fits for the Wide 9. It also could give them more room to maneuver as pass rushers.
“It’s that relentlessness and the style that they play this is the most intriguing,” Saleh told reporters recently. “Overall, just from a, getting off the ball, getting vertical and creating penetration.”
Saleh says the addition of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek also has been a key component of the change. Defensive tackles and ends will be more free to attack on the snap, with less reading and reacting, under his tutelage.
“We might look different, but philosophically, the overall foundation of the defense hasn’t changed,” said Saleh. “With the way Kocurek is teaching, I just like the decisiveness, the lack of gray area, the conviction and the tenacity at which they play. There’s not a lot that changes. I know ther’s an image and a picture that people are trying to paint, but it all comes down to conviction and teaching and what he’s trying to get done as an individual coach and individual players.”
Saleh says the Wide 9 is more in keeping with adjusting to what most opponents do now. The previous alignment, with the ends more inside, was better geared to shut down inside runs. But as Saleh told Cohn, fewer NFL teams use fullbacks – which means fewer two-back sets and less of an emphasis on pounding the ball up the middle.
So, Saleh will lean on more Wide 9 alignments in 2019 after using it on about 138 snaps in 2018. The Wide 9 is a part of head coach Pete Carroll’s defense in Seattle, and Saleh uses the Seattle defensive scheme (which he learned as an assistant in Seattle and coached in Jacksonville).