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The Tape: The 49ers 3-4

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I'm having some technical difficulties here, so I'll present this a little earlier than I had wanted to. I recorded the Steelers/Niners game from this past weekend, both because Seattle will be facing the Niners this week and because Seattle will be playing the Steelers the following week. My goal was to figure out what San Francisco 2007 looked like, was the hype about their defense legit? What's up with Frank Gore? And how has Alex Smith grown as a quarterback? Later in the week I'll break down some specific formations and plays I expect the 49ers to run against the Seahawks, but for now let's start in on the overview.

2/3rds of a Good D

Both the Steelers and 49ers run a 3-4 alignment, but to very different ends. The Steelers use a massive and menacing front three. Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are all dominant two-gap linemen. Pittsburgh's long run of defensive success is all about the line--especially Hampton. You may have heard the phrase "tie up blockers" but that's only partly true. Off the snap the Steelers front three control their blockers--that's the key. If Casey Hampton pulls left, either to stifle a rush lane of free a pash rush lane to the right, his blockers move left. It's that simple, on nearly every play where the Steelers defensive line wishes the opposition's blockers to go, they go.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that San Francisco has linebackers almost as good as Pittsburgh's. It's almost assumed they have a better secondary. But they certainly don't have nearly as good of defense. That's because the Niners line is nothing like Pittsburgh's. Right defensive end Marques Douglas has six more tackles than the Steelers entire front three. I'm not certain if Mike Nolan is intentionally running a Wade Phillips style one-gap 3-4, but that's how it plays. The problem with that is the front three routinely gives up big rushing lanes. Willie Parker who's a one cut speed rusher (sort of a faster, better Maurice Morris) lived in the 4-9 yard territory, ripping off nine such runs, and though the Steelers never really exploded on the Niners, they never looked out of control either.

Of course facing a hesitant or overly fancy rusher the Niners linebackers and secondary are ferocious tacklers. What separates Patrick Willis from the mass of young linemen who can fly to the ball and delivers highlight reel tackles is his ability to shed blockers. Willis has Tatupu's tenacity, Peterson's speed and Kerney's ability to shed blockers. That's a potent combination, and though Willis lacks the awareness of an elite linebacker, the rook has time. Willis, Nate Clements and Michael Lewis are what scares me about the Hawks rushing matchup against San Francisco. Thankfully, Manny Lawson is out for the season. A one-gap aggressive rusher who takes the holes San Francisco's front three will give is guaranteed at least productivity, a plodding cutback rusher is going to get creamed, and considering Alexander's bum hand, will fumble. Not good. If ever there was a time to give Morris looks, it's this Sunday. Here's a bold prediction, in whatever carries Morris receives, he will outperform Alexander.

I'll try and throw out another post before I have to go to class.