To say that the 49ers pass rush fell off in 2020 would be quite an understatement.
After finishing among the most feared in the league back in 2019 when it averaged 3.2 sacks per game, the San Francisco defense fell all the way to 1.9 sacks per game a season ago, putting them as the 10th worst.
There are a number of reasons that one can point to as an explanation for the drop off, starting with injuries. Losing pass rushers as talented as Dee Ford for the season in Week 1, and then Nick Bosa in Week 2, were blows that will cripple any pass rush.
Fortunately for San Francisco, Nick Bosa appears to be on track to be fully healthy for the start of the 2021 season and this has many around the team excited to see how this unit improves. While all eyes are on the return of Bosa, the biggest impact on the 49ers pass rush will likely come from Samson Ebukam.
You may be asking, “Why Ebukam?”
There is no denying that Bosa was outstanding during his rookie season in 2019, but a quick look at his performance throughout that regular season shows just how important the defensive end on the other side, Ford, was to that success.
It wasn’t just Bosa who benefitted from Ford’s presence on the field. The entire defensive line from Bosa to Arik Armstead to Ronald Blair saw their jobs made easier due to the speed and athleticism that Ford brought to the field. Through the first 10 games of the season, the San Francisco defense sacked opposing quarterbacks 39 times. When Ford was lost for all but four snaps against New Orleans during the final six weeks of the season, the pass rush plummeted, registering only nine sacks over that span.
It was no coincidence that when Ford returned for the playoffs, so did the production from Bosa and Armstead.
The loss of Ford carried over to 2020, especially for Arik Armstead, and this is where the importance of adding Ebukam comes in.
With Ford out of the lineup, Armstead was forced to take play on the outside much more often on passing downs in 2020 than he was throughout 2019. And while Armstead’s stature and long arms allow him to hold the edge well in the running game, his athleticism isn’t quite where it needs to be to have success rushing the passer on the outside. The raw numbers bare this out as does the film. Nearly all of the 11.5 sacks that Armstead has amassed the past two seasons have come while rushing from the inside, where his size and length cause problems for opposing guards and centers.
This is where the addition of Ebukam comes in.
The expectation is that Ebukam will be able to fill the Ford role along the defensive line when the 49ers move out of their base defense. With Ebukam on the field in passing situations, Armstead will be able to slide down inside where he is most effective and the hope is this will result in a return of the numbers that the veteran put up during his career year in 2019. This improvement should spread across the defensive front.
Ebukam’s athleticism should also help in one other area that the 49ers defensive front has struggled in recent seasons: slowing down mobile quarterbacks. A quick comparison of the combine and Pro Day numbers between Ford and Ebukam shows that Ebukam tested better, and this shows up on film.
To this point in his career, Ebukam has not been able to focus solely on developing himself as a pass rusher. This is important to realize, as he hasn’t had the opportunity to refine his moves while splitting time as an outside linebacker. This has resulted in Ebukam being more of a read and react pass rusher, often getting good push against the opposing tackle, and then using the techniques that he learned as a linebacker to shed the blocker and chase down the quarterback. This ability should pay big dividends for a defense that faces Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray, two of the most dangerous mobile quarterbacks in the league twice per season.
If Ebukam is able to add a few moves to his bag of tricks this season, look for him to break his previous career high of 4.5 sacks in a season, and for his presence to be key in the resurgence of Arik Armstead and the rest of the 49ers defensive front in 2021.