The 49ers showed in the first two games that if a team trots out a third wide receiver into the formation, they'll just play nickel and even dime defense, bringing extra defensive backs onto the field. The reason for this is simple: you don't want a safety or linebacker covering a wide receiver. The offense adds a speedy player, you counter with one of your own.
In fact, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga only played a few dozen snaps through the first two games due to just how often the team was in their sub packages. With Sopoaga looking unlikely to play this week against the New York Jets, I thought I'd take a look at their personnel grouping tendencies to come up with a prediction on which defense the 49ers would play most on Sunday.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Jets have favored their three-wide set, playing in this grouping over 27% of offensive snaps. Second most frequent was their two tight end package, also a formation without a fullback on the field, at nearly 15%.
I think it's fair to assume that the 49ers will play a good amount of nickel defense on Sunday as a result of these trends, if they continue to bear-out. The Jets have struggled to run the ball and San Francisco's defense is known for stifling any attempts to do so. If the 49ers are able to jump out to any sort of lead, the Jets may be forced to pass more in order to keep up, likely bringing extra wide receivers onto the field.
What's been lacking thus-far has been the turnover on defense. Donte Whitner dropped what would have been a certain pick-six interception vs. the Vikings last week, a score that would have made it a very close game. Perhaps the 49ers can take advantage of the extra defensive backs and an up-and-down QB in Mark Sanchez to capitalize on some opportunities for an interception.
The 49ers played pretty well on defense in the first two games of the season, utilizing these sub packages in wins over Green Bay and Detroit. With Sopoaga likely out and the team's success in nickel and dime, I like their chances defensively on Sunday.