The 49ers hope to improve their pass rush by inverting it.
Last season, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner rushed exclusively from the inside, defensive end Solomon Thomas rushed primarily from the outside and each recorded only three sacks.
Now, they’re switching spots.
So far during training camp, Thomas has played nothing but defensive tackle during one- on-one pass-rush drills. And on Sunday, Buckner started taking reps at defensive end.
“He’s a special talent,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said of Buckner after Monday’s practice. “He gets consistent pressure in the backfield. The challenge for us is how to get Buck one-on-one matchups as many times as possible. We’re testing him out there at that end spot to see what he looks like.”
Buckner is so good, opponents try to block him with two or three players almost every snap of every game. The 49ers feel it’s harder to double-team him when he plays defensive end, away from all those bodies in the trenches. Buckner agrees.
“You have more room to work moves,” Buckner said Monday. “On the inside, it’s tight quarters and you don’t have much time to work what you want to work. On the outside, I’m able to work a little more.”
Buckner almost sounds like he prefers rushing from the outside.
“I’m comfortable on the inside and the outside,” he said. “When the coaches told me I was going to be on the end, I was excited. I didn’t feel it was a challenge. It was an opportunity to show them what I can do.”
Buckner showed them Sunday. He played right defensive end during one-on-ones and faced all- time-great 49ers left tackle Joe Staley twice.
The first time they faced each other, Buckner rushed into Staley’s chest, knocked him on his heels and slipped by to tag the quarterback. The second time they faced, Staley lunged at Buckner and tried to grab him to avoid getting rocked backward again. Buckner slapped both of Staley’s arms to the side and cruised past him.
After practice, Staley sought out Buckner to give him feedback.
“He was telling me what’s hard about going against a guy like me on the outside,” Buckner said. “He was saying with how big and strong I am, he has to set a certain way. He can’t do what he normally does.”
Buckner is the only player on the 49ers who has beaten Staley one- on-one during training camp.
Thomas hasn’t faced Staley during that drill. Thomas has faced only guards and centers, and has beaten them consistently. Thomas seems much more effective rushing from the inside.
“Solly played more on the inside in college,” Buckner said, “so it will definitely benefit him, especially being able to go one on one against a center. Solomon is a very athletic player, so I think he will be able to match up against centers very well.”
Last season, Thomas lacked the explosion, flexibility and arm-length to beat NFL offensive tackles around the edge of the pocket. They simply engulfed him. But in training camp, he has shown he can overpower guards and centers, or beat them with a quick first step into the backfield.
On Monday, he faced Erik Magnuson, who has played both guard and center with the first-string offense in camp. During this drill, Magnuson was the right guard. Thomas was the left defensive tackle.