The resurgence of the 49ers’ defense after the bye week came following three notable changes.
First, the 49ers acquired defensive end Chase Young in a trade from the Washington Commanders. Then, the decision was made for defensive coordinator Steve Wilks to move from the coaches' booth to calling plays from the sideline.
A third difference with the 49ers' defense got a lot less attention but ranks no lower than second in importance: Moving cornerback Deommodore Lenoir to nickel back in passing situations.
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“I feel that’s the right move for how the defense looks right now,” Lenoir said. “I feel like we play a lot faster when I’m there. It’s the way to get the best 11 on the field.”
Through most of the first half of the season, the 49ers deployed Isaiah Oliver as the nickel back. But when he repeatedly struggled in coverage, the 49ers made the permanent switch to Lenoir.
Lenoir is the team’s starting cornerback opposite of Charvarius Ward in base situations. When the opposition goes with three wide receivers, Lenoir moves to nickel back and Ambry Thomas takes Lenoir’s spot on the outside.
“I can't say enough about Demo,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of Lenoir. “Demo has been so good on the outside and when we ask him to go inside, he goes in there and plays the exact same way.
San Francisco 49ers
“Wherever Demo stays at, he always gets really good at it. We need him in both areas, which puts a lot of stress on him. But I can't tell you how happy I've been with his style of play.”
Lenoir’s style of play was evident Sunday in the 49ers’ 42-19 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles when he provided the hit of the game in the fourth quarter against running back D’Andre Swift.
Jalen Hurts’ underneath pass led Swift right into Lenoir, who lowered his shoulder and delivered a crushing blow near the chest area. Lenoir’s legal hit jarred the ball loose and knocked the wind out of Swift.
Because the Eagles were in three-receiver personnel groupings so often, Lenoir spent the entire game on the slot receiver. He said he likes being in the middle of the action.
“There’s never a dull moment because you’re always closer to the ball so you can always do something,” Lenoir said. “I like that factor for myself, because I feel like I can be in there and cause a lot of disruption.”
The major difference, Lenoir said, from moving to cornerback to nickel back is the physicality required from the position. He must essentially play the position of a linebacker, which means he has to be disciplined with his run fits.
When the offense has three wide receivers on the field, Lenoir must hold up in run defense.
“I embrace it,” said Lenoir, listed at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds. “If people want to run at me, I’m going to be more physical, match the intensity and make the play.”
And Lenoir is getting better and better in coverage, too.
“I got the most confidence in myself,” he said. “I believe in my technique and what I’ve done so far this season. I feel like I can match up against any receiver you put in front of me.
“I still feel I have more to prove for myself to set the standard for myself. There are a lot of great players on this team, so it’s hard to get noticed. But I don’t pay attention to it. I do my one-eleventh and try to be the best player I can be for this team.”
The nickel back position has been one of the few question marks on the 49ers’ defense this season. The 49ers were strong in that spot for years with veterans K’Waun Willams and Jimmie Ward.
Williams signed two years ago with the Denver Broncos, and Ward moved on to the Houston Texans this offseason.
Lenoir said he still speaks regularly with Williams and Ward, both of whom he said he owes a debt of gratitude for helping him take noticeable steps in each of his three NFL seasons.
“From the knowledge aspect, I learned a lot from Jimmie,” Lenoir said. “And talking to (Williams) when I first came, he was telling me that it’s a feel thing. ‘Once you feel it, it’ll be a lot easier for you to play nickel.’
“Jimmie helped me a lot with just becoming a player in this league. Just by his guidance. His words of encouragement. He was always there when I was down or I needed some motivation.”