Fiddich Review Centre

Next up for the Commanders: The 49ers’ best-in-the-NFL defense


Earlier this week, when Logan Paulsen studied the San Francisco 49ers’ elite defense, he wondered if the Washington Commanders’ offensive approach would be viable on Saturday. The former NFL tight end, now a Commanders broadcast analyst, saw the 49ers’ fast, athletic front full of pass-rushing talent and thought it was a tough matchup. If the 49ers’ diverse offense can outpace the Commanders and force them to abandon their physical, downhill rushing attack, there could be trouble.

This season, when the scoreboard or the situation has forced the Commanders to dropback pass, the results have been bleak.

But Paulsen became more optimistic when he watched the 49ers offense. In the absence of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who broke his foot in Week 13, Coach Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling has grown more conservative. San Francisco still has one of the league’s most talented units — even with versatile wideout Deebo Samuel (ankle) sidelined this week — and rookie passer Brock Purdy has played well. But the 49ers haven’t been as explosive, Paulsen said, which means fewer points, closer games and a sliver of opportunity for Washington to pull off an upset.

“There’s a lane,” Paulsen said. He stressed that the margin for error is slim, that even a single bad turnover could easily derail the Commanders. “You just got to be patient, run the football, power punch and then build off of that.”

The 49ers have arguably the best defense in the NFL. Edge rusher Nick Bosa, a favorite for defensive player of the year honors, leads a game-wrecking front that also features tackle Arik Armstead and end Samson Ebukam. It’s supported by perhaps the league’s best linebacking corps, headlined by Fred Warner, as well as a ball-hawking safety (Talanoa Hufanga) and a sticky slot corner (Jimmie Ward). The traditional and advanced metrics are eye-popping — none more so than the Niners’ average of 13.7 points allowed per game, which is far better than the next-best team (Denver, 17.1).

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For the Commanders, the challenge is immense. They are coming off their worst offensive output in eight weeks (12 points against the Giants Sunday) and seem unsettled at quarterback. They are attempting to flush a devastating loss, fly to the West Coast on a short week and beat one of the NFC’s best teams, which will have the benefit of nine days of rest. Washington will bet on its defense to contain San Francisco, and if it’s going to have a chance, it will need more from its offense.

“This is one of the better [defenses] we will see across the board,” Coach Ron Rivera said, praising the 49ers’ athleticism and scheme. “It is somewhat of a measuring stick [for our offense].”

The best counter to the 49ers’ speed and agility is physicality, and the Commanders have a significant size advantage in the trenches. Only one Niners lineman — veteran Akeem Spence — is listed at heavier than 291 pounds, and the lightest Commanders lineman is 300-pound center Wes Schweitzer.

Yet San Francisco can compensate with its linebackers. Warner and Dre Greenlaw don’t leave the field and are extremely smart and athletic, offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. Sometimes on film, Paulsen said, it looks as if the 49ers coaches just tell the linemen to win however they can, and then the linebackers read and react to fill in the gaps.

“I definitely respect their front,” right guard Trai Turner said. “Linebackers get after it also. They play really well together.”

This season, Paulsen said, San Francisco’s athleticism has successfully thwarted opposing offenses that primarily use perimeter run schemes, such as Atlanta’s outside zone. But Washington, given its bulk, runs more downhill concepts such as duo, power, counter and inside zone. In late October, Paulsen said, Kansas City averaged 5.3 yards per carry in a win over San Francisco in large part because it ran well between the tackles (as well as some effective jet sweeps).

The 49ers are Purdy, Purdy, Purdy good

“[Washington is] going to put you in a phone booth and try to punch you in the face,” Paulsen said.

“It’s super important for us to dictate what we want to do,” Trai Turner said.

The Commanders will need better offensive play-calling. At times against the Giants, Scott Turner got away from the staples of the offense, calling more dropback passes and trick plays, and didn’t stick with the running game, which was effective. Washington still moved the ball intermittently but struggled in the red zone.

Turner emphasized that he’ll commit to the run against San Francisco but stressed that the passing game will “need to take our shots when we get them.” The difference from the Giants game, it seems, will be Turner finding shots in the structure of the offense with play action rather than true dropbacks. Rivera has noted play action mostly helps the offensive line, which struggles to “catch” in pass blocking.

“We got to do a great job getting vertical when we get the ball,” Turner said. “Every single yard is going to be at a premium because they don’t give up a lot of them.”

In passing situations, receiver Terry McLaurin said, he’ll treat his route not only as a matchup against a defender but also as a race against the defensive line. The Niners’ strong front means receivers “can’t really spend a lot of time at the line trying to dance around,” McLaurin said, which could be tough if corner Charvarius Ward (concussion) plays, given his strength in pressing receivers at the line.

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During film study this week, McLaurin added, he’s come to appreciate just how much San Francisco trusts Warner in coverage. He’s seen Warner carry receivers across the field and go man-to-man with one of the game’s best route runners, Cooper Kupp of the Los Angeles Rams, in the red zone. He’s also noticed Warner’s ability to review plays and make adjustments midgame, which means McLaurin will have plans and counter-plans ready.

“I still like that matchup,” McLaurin said. “[Warner] is a great player, but if I have a linebacker trying to wall me off on a crosser, like …” He hesitated. “I still like that matchup.”

Overall, Paulsen said, it’s critical to remember the best version of the Commanders’ game plan will probably be inefficient. It’ll be “three yards and a cloud of dust” and “death by a thousand cuts.” But if Washington remains procedurally sound, stays on schedule, avoids penalties, limits negative plays and hits a few deep shots, it’s possible.

“There is a space to be who you want to be,” Paulsen said.

But the question remains: Will that be good enough?

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