How San Francisco 49ers DC DeMeco Ryans created the NFL’s best defense

The San Francisco 49ers have done all kinds of remarkable things on defense this season, but this Deommodore Lenoir sack of Matthew Stafford with 45 seconds left in the 49ers’ 24-9 Monday night thrashing of the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams really stood out.

The Rams had third-and-13 from their own 30-yard line, and San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans was dialing up some STUFF. Pre-snap, safeties Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga flipped deep coverage, with Gipson coming down from single-high, and Hufanga replacing him. That put Gipson in the right slot, but post-snap, when you think he’d cover Cooper Kupp upfield, Gipson instead carried Kupp to linebacker Fred Warner, who somehow (I don’t know how) matched Kupp 25 yards through the seam over the middle. Warner had come from a blitz look to do so. So, Gipson was now free to come back down and cover the flat, eliminating Stafford’s hot route to tight end Tyler Higbee.

There was a blitz, but it wasn’t the one Stafford likely expected. Lenoir, who looked to be in press position on Kupp, flew right by the receiver to the quarterback, making up for the fact that Warner and fellow linebacker Dre Greenlaw had dropped into coverage. Higbee gave Lenoir a “good job, good effort” chip on the way to his route, but that wasn’t enough. At all.

Meanwhile, cornerbacks Emmanuel Moseley and Charvarius Ward had their receivers Ben Skowronek and Allen Robinson, respectively) covered tight all the way up in a twisted version of Cover-3. Had Lenoir not gotten to Stafford first, edge-rusher Nick Bosa was on his way there, terrorizing the Rams’ offensive line with a multi-gap stunt — Bosa started head-up over Higbee, and finished the play wrestling with left guard Bobby Evans.

After watching this 4-D zone exchange, I came to one simple conclusion:

The amount of coordination that goes into these plays — the tying of specific skill sets to scheme — has worked so well for Ryans’ defense. And that’s as much about coaching as it is about execution.

The 49ers currently rank first in Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA metric — fourth against the pass, first against the run. They’ve done it with established stars like Bosa and Warner and Greenlaw, but they’ve also done it with under-the-radar defenders like Gipson (who hasn’t allowed a single catch on four targets this season), Hufanga (who’s playing like an embryonic Troy Polamalu these days), edge-rushers Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu (who have 14 and 13 total pressures in the young season, respectively), and Ward (who’s excelled as the 49ers’ most-targeted defensive back).

Head coach Kyle Shanahan knows exactly who’s responsible for his top-tier defense, as his offense struggles to transcend Jimmy Garoppolo’s ceiling.

“DeMeco is so naturally talented and he’s good at everything he’s ever done and he really understands football,” Shanahan said of his defensive coordinator the day after the Rams game. “He did as a player, he did as a quality control in his first year. He did as a linebacker coach and he has as a coordinator and he was good right away. But anytime you have someone who does have those type abilities, the more reps they get, like everybody, they get better.

“You go through experiences and you learn from the good and the bad and that’s what’s pretty neat about DeMeco because he was going to be good regardless, but just watching him throughout last year, each game, each quarter he learned something. And he’s always trying to think and always trying to challenge his players, but always trying to keep it simple, too. And it’s where it at least seems simple and that’s why he gets better every game that he goes.”

The SEC Defensive Player of the Year for Alabama in 2005. A linebacker for the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles from 2006-2015. The AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. A two-time Pro Bowler, and then, a defensive quality control coach and linebackers coach for the 49ers before he became defensive coordinator in 2021. Ryans has succeeded over and over in football, he’s gotten better at his current job as Shanahan said, and his defense obviously reflects that.

But what is DeMeco Ryans doing that has the rest of the NFL in an absolute tizzy?

Rushing the passer as a group.

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Everybody knows how good Nick Bosa is; it’s in my pipeline to do an entire article on the uncalled holds Bosa generates. But it’s the other guys on that front — like Ebukam and Omenihu — who have raised their games with Ryans’ expert assistance. Ryans and Kris Kocurek, San Francisco’s highly-respected defensive line coach, present multiple problems for opponent protections with pass-rush schemes that at times look like something out of a petri dish.

This is by design, and the execution has been outstanding. The 49ers are tied with the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL’s most solo sacks (15), they rank fourth in quarterback hits with 38, only the Detroit Lions (52) have more quarterback hurries than San Francisco’s 48, and the 49ers’ 72 total pressures rank third behind the Lions and Cowboys. Bosa is the alpha here, but it’s more than just the Beta Band behind him.

“I think the thing about our group is it’s about them rushing together as a group,” Ryans said on September 30, when asked how he’s made the most out of his more underrated quarterback disruptors. “You know Bosa gets a lot of attention as the edge rusher, which is rightfully so, because he’s such a dynamic player. So it’s just about all those guys, just whoever, it’s opposite him or whoever’s inside, it’s all about those guys rushing together as one. So the more they can be coordinated, make sure they’re communicating with their stunts and games the proper way, and rushing together like that, that’s what makes our group go. That’s what makes our group effective is all those guys working together.”

Omenihu’s sack against the Rams was an excellent example of this. It happened with 1:17 left in the first half, and this was just diabolical. Omenihu and Arik Armstead each ran loops inside, Warner looped multiple gaps the other way, and the Rams’ protections were completely bollixed. Between Omenihu and Warner, left guard Bobby Evans was wrong no matter which way he went. This scheme was a brilliant way of putting one poor blocker in a vice.

So, there’s your problem when you’re dealing with San Francisco’s pass rush. You have several defensive linemen who can beat your offensive linemen one-on-one, and then, Ryans and Kocurek start to get weird, and your quarterback is in a great deal of trouble.

Trusting Fred Warner to be the alien he is.

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

In today’s NFL, if you want to have a great defense, it helps to have at least one linebacker who can read everything in front of him, cover everything in back of him, and get to wherever he needs to go in a bigger hurry than anybody he’s defending.

Fortunately for Ryans and the 49ers, Fred Warner is exactly that kind of linebacker. We saw this for about the 1,000th time with 14:05 left in the third quarter of the 49ers’ Week 3 game against the Denver Broncos.

We also saw how Warner could match Cooper Kupp 25 yards upfield on that  Matthew Stafford sack detailed in the intro. In that same game, Warner made life tough for Rams receiver Ben Skowronek on this delayed crosser which could have been a touchdown had Warner not broken the pass up with perfect placement and timing.

Warner single-handedly turned the end of this drive from a potential touchdown into a 29-yard Matt Gay field goal.

Ryans doesn’t need to tell anybody how great Warner is, but I do find what Warner has said about Ryans — his defensive coordinator and former linebackers coach — to be illustrative.

“[DeMeco’s] the best, he’s the best,” Warner said in July. “And I don’t just say that just because obviously he’s my coach. I know what greatness looks like and he [shows] that every day, not only just as a coach, but as a person. The leadership ability, the teachability that he possesses, and continuing to want to get better as a coach [is shown every day]. [He wants] this group to get better and [pushes] us and [makes] sure that he prepares every single day to make sure he gives us his best self.”

If Ryans is the best, there’s no better reason on the field — perhaps outside of Bosa — than Warner.

Turning the young guys into stars.

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

In Week 1 of the 2022 preseason, fifth-round rookie cornerback Samuel Womack III came away with two interceptions of Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love. It was quite the statement, and those two picks put Womack on the first Secret Superstars team of the 2022 season.

“I think for him, throughout this entire camp, I’ve seen progress. Each day I’ve seen progress,” Ryans said of Womack, two days before his NFL debut. “I like the way he is in man coverage; he’s been sticky, he’s been challenging. A lot of contested throws there, PBUs. So he’s headed in a really good direction, just continues to get better. I’m excited where he is and it’s exciting to see his growth and his continued development.”

Ryans also said in the preseason that Womack had some things to work on, and if you want to start in this defense, you’d better be on point. For all his early excellence, Womack has seen just 38 coverage snaps in the regular season. It takes time to work into a group doing things at this level of complexity and fundamental soundness.

One player who has ascended this season is second-year safety,  Talanoa Hufanga, who is in the process of making 31 NFL teams regret leaning too heavy on his pre-draft medical history. The 49ers stole Hufanga in the fifth round of the 2021 draft, and this season, he’s allowed five receptions on 13 targets for 41 yards, 15 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, two interceptions, two pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of…


The only NFL safety allowing a lower opponent passer rating? Veteran Tashaun Gipson Sr., Hufanga’s bookend, who has given up no catches on four targets with one interception, two pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of…

Back to Hufanga’s two interceptions, which should actually be four.

This was slot cornerback-level coverage on Tyler Lockett, and it should have been a pick. Hufanga’s game-clinching pick-six against the Rams with 6:36 remaining was far more decisive.

“We were just man coverage, locked up with the tight end,” Hufanga said of the play. “They were just running screens all night, I saw a different release than I’m used to, so instead of following my man I turned my head and the ball kind of dropped in my face. I’m not gonna lie, I thought Stafford was going to catch me. My 40 time doesn’t help when it comes to that. I’m grateful to have gone out there with my guys and have fun.”

Warner was happy for his young teammate.

“Huf, of all people to get that, he deserves it, man, he’s been playing out of his mind. That was a huge, big-time play in a big time moment.”

Ryans loved everything about it.

“It’s a huge play and it’s a credit to, as I talk every week about, Huf and the questions that come up about him. It’s always about the preparation throughout the week. And that’s where he sets himself apart and I think I’ve said it before and you see it right there on that particular play. He’s able to not just be a robot out there. We want our guys to be football players and instinctually, when you’re able to see something and trigger on it, that’s what makes you a special player.

“Some guys can see something, but it’s also, oh, I have to stick to my rules and just be a robot. Huf is not a robot on the field. That’s what allows him to stick out. That’s what allows him to make the plays he’s made. That’s what allowed him to be like one of the best safeties in the league right now, because of his instincts. And he’s not scared to go make a play when it calls for him to go make a play.”

(AP Photo/Emilee Chinn)

Ryans has been talking Hufanga up for a while — he especially appreciates how inquisitive his star safety is. Apparently, some of Hufanga’s former coaches have remarked that his inquisitiveness is almost annoying, which Ryans doesn’t get at all.

“Yeah, he asks questions and I’m like, bring them on, so I don’t know what’s wrong with those other coaches, but I’m always like bring it on,” Ryans said last week. “When the player is asking questions, I think as a coach, like you want guys who are, man, they want to know the why. Like why are we doing this? Or coach, how exactly do you want me, where you want me to be on this? I love that in Huf. I love that in all of players. If you’re asking those questions that lets me know as a coach that you’re into it and you want to know the why. You want to know why. Not just, oh, I’m just doing something just because the coach told me to do it.

“And that’s what separates Huf and that’s why he’s sticking out amongst everybody is because he asks those questions, he’s processing everything throughout the week so when you see him on Sunday, he can cut it loose and that’s what everybody’s seen and that’s why he’s been exciting to watch these first three weeks just because of those questions.”

Ryans wants his players all-in. It’s the only way this defense can work.

Putting it all together.

(AP Photo/Doug Benc)

So, the 49ers have a monstrously effective defense that can throw just about anything at you, and they should be in great shape as long as Ryans is around. I’d like to think he’ll be a head coach sooner than later, but (screams in Eric Bieniemy) we’ll have to see how that goes.

Perhaps the most terrifying part of all this is that Ryans is always looking to improve. He’s not at all complacent about his defense’s hot start. (By the way, cornerback Jason Verrett and safety Jimmie Ward are getting ready to return to practice following injury issues.)

In early September, Ryans talked about how his second season as a defensive coordinator looks.

“I mean the process is the same, right? It’s the anxiety, the anxiousness, just making sure no stones are unturned to make sure we’re giving our guys everything they possibly need to be ready to go out and perform on Sunday. So, it’s always there. I’m always pumped up and just excited to get in and game plan and then get out to see our guy’s practice and actually execute the game plan, see them go out and do it flawlessly.

“Like these guys, the guys we work with, I can’t say enough about just the men that we work with, these guys are tremendous. Anything we ask of these guys, they’re on it. And they do it for each other, which makes our group very special. And that’s one thing I’m excited about. So, whoever we face, whoever we go against, it’s about the men that we have in this locker room, they’re exceptional men, and I am proud to coach these guys.”

The players obviously feel the same, as does the head coach. Once again, DeMeco Ryans has found a way to tie the game of football around his finger.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire