49ers hope Chase Young can boost underachieving defense

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Given the San Francisco 49ers' track record since coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch arrived in 2017, it should be no surprise the Niners traded a third-round draft pick to the Washington Commanders for defensive end Chase Young on Tuesday.

What is surprising is that the Niners, who have never shied away from investing draft capital or serious money into the defense or the defensive line, were in a position where they believed they need to make another big move there.

In three of the past four years, the 49ers have reached the NFC Championship Game, in large part because the defense served as the foundation on which their championship hopes were built.

That figured to be the case again this season. But the past three games -- all losses -- have dramatically changed that perception. That's why adding Young isn't necessarily about making the Niners' defense the reason they can win the Super Bowl so much as it's about ensuring it doesn't become the reason they don't.

Coming off a 2022 season in which they ranked first in points allowed per game (16.3) and defensive expected points added (89.58), among other key categories, the 49ers signed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million in the offseason.

Adding Hargrave was supposed to help offset the loss of coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who left to become the head coach of the Houston Texans, and key defenders such as defensive back Jimmie Ward, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair and defensive linemen Charles Omenihu and Samson Ebukam, all of whom departed in free agency.

Shanahan hired veteran coach Steve Wilks as defensive coordinator. Shanahan believed Wilks' experience coaching defensive backs could bolster the production from the secondary while not changing how the Niners stuff the run and rush the passer.

The early returns on those offseason changes were good, as the Niners ranked first in the NFL in points allowed per game (13.6), fifth in defensive EPA (33.98) and sixth in takeaways (9) while winning their first five games. Over the past three weeks, those ranks have dropped to 24th (24.0), 32nd (minus-16.49) and 13th (4), respectively, as the Niners have lost three straight to drop to 5-3.

In that three-game stretch, the Niners' defensive woes have been far-reaching. They've struggled to stop the run, haven't consistently pressured or sacked the quarterback and even failed to tackle consistently.

"All that stuff alarmed me the most," coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday.

While it's too much to ask Young to fix all of those issues, the Niners are once again betting that curing their pass-rush problems will lead to a more holistic defensive improvement.

In the first eight games, San Francisco ranks 24th in pressure rate (26.3%) and 27th in sacks per drop back (5.3%), despite a 50.6% pass rush win rate that's ninth in the league. The disconnect between the first two numbers and the third can be attributed to teams getting the ball out quickly but also to the lack of a consistent threat to win one-on-one opportunities opposite end Nick Bosa.

Because of the talent he's joining on the line (Hargrave and Arik Armstead join Bosa as starters), Young should have plenty of favorable matchups and help create a few more.

And while the Niners didn't bolster their secondary on Tuesday, Young's presence should give opposing quarterbacks fewer escape options when the pocket collapses and allow Wilks to dial up tighter coverage calls.

"We can do a better job on the back end in coverage, whether it's man or zone, and allowing the quarterback to hold the ball a little longer," Wilks said last week. "Watching tape, I think we're close, I think we're close a lot. We're going to eventually get there. I'm not really pressing right now about the lack of production because I feel like it's going to come."

Perhaps Young can expedite that process. Finally healthy after tearing the ACL and patellar tendon in his right knee in 2021, Young has looked much more like the 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year who had 7.5 sacks than the player who totaled 1.5 sacks in 12 games the last two seasons.

Through seven games this season, Young has 25 pressures (eighth in the NFL), five sacks and has created 16 incompletions (tied for fourth-most) while posting a pass rush win rate of 24.8% (11th). He's also been solid in the run game, with six tackles for loss.

In San Francisco, Young is expected to immediately step into the starting role opposite Bosa, his close friend and former Ohio State teammate. The Niners have their bye this week, which allows Young additional time to get used to his new team and scheme.

And if he's the fit the Niners envision, it should go a long way toward getting their once-vaunted defense back to championship caliber.