Tuesday, August 4, 2020

SF 49ers: All-Time 3-4 Top Seasons

By John Turney
The following is a "career-year" team selected from the years the San Francisco 49ers played a base 3-4 defense—the "3-4 era" if you will.

The 49ers 3-4 "era" was from 1981-93 and then from 2005 through 2017 (though from 2005-2008 the 49ers switched back and forth, so we accounted for that in our picks). They are now back to a 4-3 base with the likes of Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead in the front four.

So, our "career-year" 3-4 era are those seasons. We will pick a base and a sub (nickel) unit.

Honorable Mentions
First, let's get the honorable mentions out of the way. Many of the ones on the Second-teams above were close choices, narrow choices above some of the names below.

Keena Turner, 1984, Mike Walter, 1989, Willie Harper, 1983, were all good. Turner was especially good. If we went for long-term picks rather than "career years" Turner and Walter would have been locks. Turner, we put on the nickel team anyway, but he was a good "Whip" or "Will" in base, but we had to go with the dominant pass rushers there.

Ray McDonald, 2011 as a base end and nose tackles Aubrayo Franklin, 2009, and Isaac Sopoaga, 2011 all get mentions. Nate Clements, 2010 and Don Griffin, 1990, were tough to not pick as the Second-team corner but felt Rodgers was a hair above them. We felt the same about Eric Reid's 2013.

Base Defense
Pierce Holt 
So, beginning with the base defense we chose Pierce Holt and Justin Smith. Holt, from 1989 to 1992 averaged 50 tackles and six sacks and Smith, from 2008-14 average 43 tackles and six sacks. Holt was a Second-team All-Pro in 1992 and Smith was a consensus All-Pro in 2011.

Both were stout run defenders in the 30 defense and would sink to tackle in the nickel and were fine rushers inside. Smith was especially tough inside, drawing a lot of double teams. 

Dwaine Board, 1983, Kevin Fagan, 1990, are the backups. In full seasons from 1981-86 Board averaged 45 tackles and 10 sacks a year and from 1988-90 Fagan's averages were 7 sacks and 50 tackles per season. 

Board would play right end in base defense but would usually move to left end in nickel to accommodate Fred Dean who usually played right end or the open end. On occasion, in 1986, he'd play inside in the nickel. 

Michael Carter is the top nose and Pete Kugler's 1983 is the Second-team. Carter was likely the top run defending nose tackle of the 1980s. He even got some pressure in passing downs at times. Kugler was a very active-type nose in 1983, had a good year, then left for the USFL. When he returned to the NFL in 1986 he was the starting left defensive end for the 49ers in 1987.
Charles Haley 
For the rush backer or "Elephant", we chose Haley over Aldon Smith. The term "Elephant" actually denotes the 49ers 4-3 defense. Haley's position was "whip". However, the "Elephant" term later because synonymous with the "Whip" so we went with that terminology.

This was a hard choice, but Haley's experience gives him the nod—in 1990 he'd been a starter for a few seasons whole Smith's 2012 was his first year as a starter. Both were dominant rushers—game-changers. Smith was a more freakish athlete but Haley was a little more slippery, a better technician. 
Patrick Willis 
We went with Willis and Bowman as the top inside linebackers. Willis was the "Mike" and Bowman the "Ted" the tight end side 'backer. Willis has a good shot at the Hall of Fame. Bowman was almost as good. Willis was en effective blitzer and was excellent in coverage. Any number of seasons for Willis could have been chosen but we went with 2009 with his 152 tackles four sacks, htree picks, 8 passes defensed and three forced fumbles. In 2013 Bowman had 145 tackles 5 sacks, six forced fumbles, two picks and eight passes defensed. That is some kind of production for inside linebackers.

In 2005 Derek Smith was the "Mike"' and had 116 tackles but 12.5 were 'stuffs'—a tackle behind the line of scrimmage to lead the NFL. At the other inside 'backer the "Plugger" as it was called in the 49er scheme is Hacksaw Reynolds. At first. Reynolds was the left inside linebacker in 1981 but quickly began to lineup opposite the tight end. He led the 49ers in tackles in 1981 and 1982 but gave way to situation linebackers more and more in 1983 and 1984. 

The Buck/Strongside linebacker is Ahmad Brooks and he backed up by todd Shell's 1985. From 2011 through 2016 Brooks averaged 50 tackles and 7 sacks and we think 2013 was likely his best season. Shell had a very short NFL career due to injuries but was called an 'emerging star" in 1984, and in 1985 he played over the tight end in base and was a nickel linebacker in sub defenses. In 1985 he made 56 tackles, four sacks, one pick, and defensed six passes. He was someone who filled three roles that were filled by three players previously, the "Buck" and the nickel rush inside 'backer and the nickel cover linebacker. 
Ronnie Lott 
Three of our four secondary members were from 1981 (Lott, Williamson, Hicks) and Eric Wright, we went with 1985 but several seasons would have worked. He picked off a lot of balls in 1983 then teams quit targeting him. Clearly, Lott could have been picked as a safety for 1986 or other years as well, but we kept it to one position per player.

Backing them up we chose Tim McKyer, 1988, Carlos Rogers, 2011, as the corners and Donte Whitner, 2013, and Dashon Goldson, 2012 as the deep men. 

Sub defense
Fred Dean 
Fred Dean, 1981 (12 sacks with 49ers), and Aldon Smith, 2012 (19.5 sacks), are the top ends. Smith, this time, beats out Haley's 1990 year (16 sacks). In pass-rush mode, Smith was just dominating and though picking Haley over Smith would have been okay, Smith was just tremendous in 2012. Dean was simply the key to the 49ers getting over the hump to the Super Bowl. He gave them what they needed to beat the good teams and he was the first non-starting designated pass rusher to be All-Pro, go to a Pro Bowl and win a Defensive Player of the Year Award (He was the UPI DOPY).  Board gets the final slot on the edge.
Jeff Stover
Jeff Stover
The inside rushers were easy. We just sink Holt and Smith to tackles. We do pick Holt's 1989 in nickel as opposed to his 1992 in the base due to more sacks and hurries. We also sink Fagan from, end to tackle. 
Justin Smith
Then bring in Jeff Stover who was a long, lean, strong fast rusher. Stover, like Michael Carter, was a world-class shot-putter. Stover though was an angular body type who was 6-5, 275, and could run a 4.7 forty and average over 10 sacks a season in 1985-86.  

Willis is our First-team nickel linebacker and his backup is Keena Turner who was a fine linebacker whose forte was coverage—often being the only linebacker on the field. In his prime, from 1981-87 Turner averaged 65 tackles, 3 sacks, 8 passes defensed per season. In 1984 he pilfered four passes and in 1985 he had 6 sacks. He was a complete off-the-ball linebacker. 
Jeff Fuller 
As the other linebacker position, we are picking the "Buffalo nickel" Jeff Fuller, 1985. He's the kind of player you see all over the place now, a safety playing one of the linebacker spots in nickel and can play the second-slot receiver in dime without the defense having to change personnel. From 1984-86, per 16 games, Fuller averaged 3 sacks and 3 picks, though he was hurt and missed 10 games in 1986. He was a special player would would be a star in today's NFL with his hybrid skills.

Bobby Leopold was the linebacker who came in for coverage in 1983 and did a fine job. He was good enough at pass coverage that he started at safety on occasion (much like Seth Joyner could do a decade later). 

Our five-man secondary for nickel is as follows: corners Tim McKyer, 1988, and Eric Wright, 1985. The strong safety is Carlton Williamson, 1981, the nickel free safety Tom Holmoe, 1986, and lurker (the 49ers nomenclature) Ronnie Lott, 1981.  

Lott also played safety in nickel in 1981, he probably played more slot or "lurk" in 1982 and 1983 but that was a function of what teams did at the time. In 1984 the 49ers were in nickel about one-third of the time, split between their "nickel" and "Buffalo" and in 1981 it was less than that. Now, sub defenses can be anywhere from 50-75% of the defensive snaps.

Regardless, Lott was great at the slot, he had the coverage abilities of the corner but could blitz and hit or play middle-of-the field. 

The second-unit secondary is composed of Carlos Rogers, 2011 (corner), and Tarell Brown, 2010 (outside corner, the 'nickel back'), Donte Whitner, 2013, and Dashon Goldson, 2012 (safeties), and Nate Clements, 2010, (playing the slot).

Agree or disagree? Let us know in comments below.


  1. Of the down lineman who would you say is best at splitting double team and taking down ball carrier.

  2. Though they are forgotten, I thought Pillars, Reese and later Roberts made many good plays on the defensive line as well. Pillars rush and sack on Danny White to close the 81/82 NFC Championship game will stay in my mind forever and has kept Cowboy Drew Pearson, who made the clutch catch prior to the turnover, from making the HOF ...

    I still dont know why to this day that a contender like the SD Chargers would give Dean and Gary Johnson to the 49ers ? The 49ers used them off the bench brilliantly, and Johnson had great games in the 84/85 postseason for the 49ers ...

  3. A very fun read for this old Niner fan.
    Thanks, John.

    It was nice to see "Dwight Hicks and the Hot Licks" make the team as a unit (altho you have Eric Wright from a different season). Also good to see Keena Turner, Jeff Fuller and Dwaine Board mentioned.

    I was surprised to see Bryant Young omitted (unless I just missed him) but I guess that is in keeping with the time frame you specified.

    Thanks again for another fine article.