49ers relegate Solomon Thomas to defending run

SANTA CLARA - When the 49ers drafted Solomon Thomas with the third pick in 2017, they thought they’d get a Pro Bowl defensive lineman, an elite interior pass rusher. Not a mere part-time player.

Now, they see Thomas for what he is: A mere part-time player.

He was a designated run defender last Sunday. He played defensive end when the coaches expected the Minnesota Vikings to run, and didn’t play when the coaches expected the Vikings to pass.

“He’s a really good run defender,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said about Thomas on Thursday. “And he’s actually quick. He can disengage quick and get to the ball carrier quick. He doesn’t give up a lot of ground on double teams, so he’s a very good run defender in that regard. Obviously, we fully trust him to defend the run.”

And obviously, they don’t fully trust him to rush the quarterback. That’s why last Sunday he played only 35 of the 71 defensive snaps - less than half the game. Thomas hasn’t yet earned the right to rush on third down.

“If we’re talking about third-down pass rush and all of that stuff, he’s got to be one of the best ones on a consistent basis,” Saleh said. “And he’s gotten a lot better. He really has.”

But he hasn’t gotten good enough. He’s not one of the four best pass rushers. During most third downs Sunday, the edge rushers were Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair, while the interior rushers were DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.

“Thomas will get run (playing time) on third down,” Saleh insisted. “He’s not dead at all in that regard. In the second half, we had three-and-outs, so there was just no chance to get him out there.”

Saleh was saying the defense didn’t need to rotate defensive linemen in the second half because it wasn’t on the field long.

“He’ll still play base downs outside,” Saleh continued. “Trying to find opportunities for him to rush inside on obvious passing situations. He’ll get some action hopefully this week against Detroit.”

But not as much action as Armstead.

Armstead is much bigger than Thomas. Armstead is 6-foot-7, 300 pounds. Thomas is 6-foot-3, 270 pounds. On the defensive line, size counts.

Armstead was the 49ers’ first-round pick in 2015. Like Thomas, Armstead hasn’t lived up to expectations yet. He missed eight games in 2016 with a torn labrum, and 10 games last season with a broken hand, and has just six career sacks.

Now, Armstead is healthy, and coming into his own.

“He’s a very large human being,” Saleh said. “And when he plays like a very large human being and plays with that mindset of power, he is a very, very hard human being to block. Very hard. What he showed when he came back from his injury with the pocket push he was able to create, I felt it would be great to give him the first opportunity. He’s very promising with what he has shown.”

As long as Armstead is healthy, Thomas won’t get many opportunities to rush the quarterback from the interior. Because the other interior rusher, Buckner, is the best player on the 49ers. And he’s a big human being like Armstead. They make Thomas look like their kid brother.

Saleh gushed about Buckner and Armstead. “When you’ve got two 6-foot-7 trees in the middle pushing the pocket and playing with that mindset, it is very hard for a quarterback to be able to see down the middle of a field,” he said.

Thomas can’t push the pocket like Buckner and Armstead. So, Thomas may get more opportunities to rush the quarterback from the edges of the defensive line.

Last season, Thomas frequently rushed from the edge on third down while Buckner and Armstead rushed from middle. But Thomas wasn’t good rushing from the edge, either, because he doesn’t bend well, he has short arms and no counter move. Offensive tackles engulfed him. He apparently has trouble rushing from the inside and the outside.

Now, Ronald Blair is playing instead of Thomas at defensive end on third down. Blair was on the 49ers last year but hardly played. He was Thomas’ backup. Blair is a former fifth-round pick who has earned $900,000 during his career. Thomas has earned $19 million.

“I love Ronnie’s intensity,” Saleh said. “He’s a tireless worker, he really is. He does it exactly the way you want it to be done and he’s a guy that he’s going to win with tremendous effort and grit. From that regard with Ronnie, you just have great confidence that somehow, someway he’s going to find a way to become unblocked during the down and win. It might not always look pretty, but it’s winning and that’s basically what I love about Ronnie. He just knows how to win football.”

Blair recorded half of a sack against the Vikings. He will play as long as he continues to produce.

“The guy that some people aren’t mentioning either is (defensive tackle) Sheldon Day,” Saleh said. “He’s got a little bit of run (advantage) on the inside pass rush because he can win in there. It’s on us as coaches to make sure that he’s also getting those opportunities to continue to get better.”

That’s another player who could take snaps from Thomas on third down.

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