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Galina: DeMeco Ryans' scheme has the 49ers defense playing at a high level without high level CBs

San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner (54) causes Green Bay Packers tight end Marcedes Lewis (89) to fumble following a first quarter reception during their NFL divisional round playoff game on Saturday, January 22, 2022, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Wm. Glasheen USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Apc Packers Vs San Francisco Divisional Playoff 10183 012222wag

It’s not often that a team bereft of cornerbacks dominates its first two playoff games because, in a passing league, the defenders who cover pass-catchers tend to be very valuable.

Yet, the San Francisco 49ers and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans have schemed around their deficiencies to completely shut down the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, who both finished top six in expected points added (EPA) per play during the regular season. 

The defense has been lights out in the playoffs holding the Cowboys to a -0.18 EPA/play and the Packers to -0.13, which was the Cowboys' third-least efficient game and the Packers' second least efficient over the course of the season. In addition, the 49ers held the Los Angeles Rams — the team they’ll face again in the NFC Championship Game — to -0.14 EPA/play in the second half of Week 18 en route to a comeback overtime victory as another feather in their cap. 

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No Cornerbacks, No Problem 

The 49ers were the only team in the divisional round who didn't have a cornerback that played over 800 snaps this season, and most teams had two. San Francisco's most used cornerback was Josh Norman, who has fallen out of favor and does not even start anymore. With Emmanuel Moseley and Ambry Thomas on the outside, the 49ers cannot play man coverage. The 49ers utilized Cover 1 on only 18.7% of the team's defensive snaps during the regular season (22nd) and just 14.7% during the playoffs. 

Over course of the season, Ryans has used man coverage at a decreasing rate:

Split Cover 1 Rate
Week 1-11 22.2%
Week 12-Divisional Round 13.9%

The 49ers didn't use man coverage a ton even under former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, but it has come to a screeching halt over the back half of this season. San Francisco cannot just “man up” receiving threats and let its pass rush go to work. The 49ers coverage eliminates threats with incredible zone drops while matching routes with integrity from inside out — the strength of their defense — which forces quarterbacks to hold on to the football long enough for San Francisco's pass rush can swallow passers whole. 

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Man in the Middle

Fred Warner — the 49ers' “Mike” linebacker — is the key to San Francisco's defense as an all-around route eliminator. The former BYU Cougar plays like he has 360-degree vision. He eliminates routes because of his ability to play different coverage techniques based on the 49ers' different coverages. 

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