Shanahan: 49ers defense needs to fix run issues ahead of Super Bowl LVIII

Jan 31, 2024, 12:45 PM | Updated: 1:14 pm

Jahmyr Gibbs #26 of the Detroit Lions runs the ball against Ji'Ayir Brown #27 of the San Francisco ...

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have a problem on defense: Stopping the run. And while they did just enough to halt Detroit, the Red & Gold will need to step it up on Super Bowl Sunday.

The 49ers have been gashed on the ground during the 2023 postseason. In only two games, SF has allowed 318 rushing yards to the opposition. To their credit, both opponents (Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions) had effective run games with talented ball carriers.

But the numbers don’t lie: The 49ers have to improve on stopping the run, with Kyle Shanahan fully aware of the issue.

“Yeah, we haven’t done very well, it’s been the common theme,” the 49ers coach said Monday about the team’s run struggles. “But people are going to get the edge when they block down on a defensive end. I thought there was a couple ones. I thought we did better with the crack tosses. There was a reverse yesterday on the fourth play of the game, one that we do a lot. The one that we call ‘dope’. That’s a really tough reverse to stop.”

Shanahan is referring to Lions’ WR Jameson Williams 42-yard scamper to the endzone out of the gate.

The “dope” play design features an endaround reverse for the wideout, using pull blockers to create a seam for the player. The misdirection includes the quarterback (Jared Goff) moving to his left to keep the defense guessing, while the speed of Williams is used to the max as he races past 49ers.

The play-call by Lions’ offensive coordinator Ben Johnson was a good one, but it was the pursuit of the Red & Gold that had Shanahan scratching his head last Sunday.

“They pull a guard, they block two people down, which will get the edge, you will pin the defensive end, which they got with [defensive end Nick] Bosa. They’ll block down on the next guy. Then they have a guy kick out. Then you need pursuit on the field and that play was disappointing to me because I thought our pursuit was as bad as it’s been all year on both the two long runs,” the coach explained. “We did get the edge, not with the defensive end because they blocked down on him, but we get it with the next guy to turn it back. When he turned it back, our pursuit wasn’t there. That was the biggest disappointing thing about both those touchdown runs.”

The other play Shanahan references occurred in the second quarter, when running back Jahmyr Gibbs exposed the 49ers.

Detroit ran a crack toss run to the right, a play the home side had spent a week trying to fix after the Packers’ debacle. That preparation didn’t show however, with a seam created for Gibbs to race past 49ers from the 15-yard-line to the endzone for six points.

The problem wasn’t setting the edge though, it was the pursuit from the second level that concerned Shanahan.

Gibbs made safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. miss in the open field, cutting back and bursting past 49ers defensive linemen in the process. The damning image is that of Chase Young, seemingly jogging over to gang tackle and whiffing on the play entirely.

The 49ers coach came to the defense of his DLs, approaching it from the secondary perspective of everybody swarming to the football with pursuit. And a synonym for said word: Effort, something that was lackluster on both TD runs.

“Yeah, it depends on which play because they’re all different,” Kyle Shanahan stated. “But like the reverse touchdown, it was a pulling guard with a fake away. So it looks like it’s a run away and the tackle comes down. So you should be crashing down. Then you get the reverse to the wideout going the other way. So they turn back right into the pin block. The ones that immediately happen, they want to go at it, but they’re still going to get pinned. The defensive ends, it’s not defensive ends. When you crack down on that you are getting outside. It’s our force player. That could be a cloud. It could be a strong safety in three deep. There’s different things you can do with that. That’s why there isn’t one clean answer.”

The 49ers will need find a few answers over the next week and a half if they want to emerge victorious over the Kansas City Chiefs.

San Francisco’s bread and butter formula for success has been establishing dominance early in contests. When the 49ers control the time of possession, good things happen. The game script has flipped the last two weeks however, losing the possession battle in the first half. That’s largely been due to the run game issues, with drives of 8, 11, and even 17 plays allowed by the Red & Gold against the Lions.

That has to change in Super Bowl LVIII. SF’s 22nd-ranked defense after Week 11 needs to revert back to their best form of years’ past. Otherwise, it could be a long day against a Chiefs’ squad averaging 127.33 yards per game this postseason.

“It depends on the scheme, depends on offensively and depends on the fronts and coverages you’re playing. But for the most part, whoever is setting the edge, which it usually isn’t the defensive end, our defensive ends are setting the edge when people aren’t blocking down. But it’s our clouds. It’s our safeties. It’s the pursuit of the backside because when someone does block down, that means someone’s picked. And when someone’s picked, everyone else can run over the top. We just have gotten crease too much and we better figure out a way to fix it,” Kyle Shanahan said.

Key dates for Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers

  • Sunday, Feb. 11th – Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas
  • Tuesday, Feb. 20th – Teams can begin franchising players until Tuesday, March 5th
  • Tuesday, Feb. 27 – NFL Combine begins

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