LAS VEGAS — It might’ve been the most pivotal defensive snap of the San Francisco 49ers’ season to this point. They led, 27-24, midway through the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. But the Detroit Lions were driving, and they decided to gamble on a fourth-and-3 from the 49ers’ 30-yard line.
Leading to that play, the 49ers had spent the entire season working to refine a bevy of coverage disguises implemented by their first-year defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks. The secondary delivered a good season. Wilks’ disguises had generally worked. But this particular one had to work, and the 49ers entrusted the key role to a defensive back who’d just entered the game at nickelback — and hadn’t yet played at that position for the 49ers.
That was 32-year-old Logan Ryan, an 11-year NFL veteran. He pressed up on Detroit’s top receiver, Amon-Ra St. Brown, at the line. The 49ers were running what they call their “Two-Max” defense, which is a Cover 2 zone — but dressed up as man-to-man coverage. It was Ryan’s job to sell the deke, and he did so with some added gusto that wasn’t part of the original plan.
“Before I dropped down into my zone, my Cover 2 curl drop, I wanted to get some hands on him,” Ryan said on Wednesday at the 49ers’ team hotel. “So I did a quick jam on him. I wanted to really sell the man-to-man. And it knocked him off balance. It threw the timing of the route off. I was happy I did, because I think he was the target on the play.”
Lions quarterback Jared Goff, flummoxed by Ryan’s disruption and the subsequent realization that St. Brown wasn’t actually coming open out of his break, bailed the pocket and threw incomplete. The 49ers took over on downs and marched toward a 10-point lead that’d be enough to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LVIII.
The challenge intensifies now against the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, who’s perhaps the NFL’s savviest quarterback. But the 49ers are shrewd on the back end, too, as evidenced by the veteran presences of Ryan and 33-year-old safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. They believe they’re well-equipped to make the on-the-fly coverage adjustments necessary to deliver in the biggest game that there is.
Ryan, who has 18 playoff games and two Super Bowl championships with the New England Patriots under his belt, already implemented one of those in the NFC title game.
“Receivers being able to run around through our defense freely, that’s something I don’t believe in,” Ryan said. “It’s something I want to incorporate more of: hitting guys as they run through our defense so they can’t just run through so cleanly. We’re the best at getting back and establishing our zones and playing sound, but I think getting physical and knocking guys off on our way there is something that we could do and something that I did on that play — and it worked out.”
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It’s unclear how the 49ers will line up on Sunday, at least to begin the Super Bowl. To start the playoffs, Wilks inserted Ambry Thomas into an outside cornerback spot and moved fellow corner Deommodore Lenoir into the slot for nickel packages. But when Thomas hurt his ankle against the Lions, the 49ers kept Lenoir at outside corner and called on Ryan, who played the final 13 snaps at nickelback. Ryan had played that position for other teams in previous seasons, but never in a game for the 49ers.
“I give credit to the coaching staff,” Ryan said. “They started repping me at nickel a week or two prior. I said, ‘This is my third position I’ve learned in six weeks: free safety, strong safety and now you want me to learn nickel while playing safety?’ They challenged me to learn that and study it.”
It wasn’t the first time the 49ers challenged Ryan with an expedited timeline. After All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga tore his ACL in late November, the team needed reinforcement at the position. General manager John Lynch, a Hall of Fame safety, called Ryan — who was on a Disney cruise with his family at the time. Ryan had impressed the 49ers the season prior when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and delivered eight tackles in a game against them at Levi’s Stadium (that happened to be the first start of QB Brock Purdy’s career).
The 49ers wanted Ryan to try out for them immediately this past November, but he needed at least some time to whip himself into shape.
“I told them, ‘I need two weeks,’” Ryan said. “I needed to get back on land to feel what land feels like. It was an insane workout schedule to get me ready. But one — I had to not drink on the cruise. And two, I had to occupy the gym every day on the cruise.”
Upon his return home to Tampa, Ryan trained with a boxing coach every day and invited former NFL cornerback Javier Arenas, who trains young players in the Tampa area, to the 50-yard football field in his backyard.
“Javier would come for two hours, running routes against me,” Ryan said. “Then my boxing coach would take me for an hour or two, and then Javier would come back out. We just blitzed my legs.”
By early December, Ryan flew out to the Bay Area. The 49ers signed him on Dec. 6, after a tryout. He was in uniform the following Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
Ryan introduced himself to his new teammates at a DB meeting that week.
“The first thing I told them,” Ryan said, “was, ‘I’m here to be a part of the team and I’m also here to win a championship. With my play, with my knowledge, whatever you need — I’m here to help you play better. If I’m behind you, I’m going to help the starter play better. I’ll try to use all my experience and give it to Ambry Thomas, to Ji’Ayir Brown, to Deommodore Lenoir, to Charvarius Ward.’
“I have about 20 playoff games in my career, so I told the guys to be themselves, to trust themselves. Mistakes are going to happen. I showed vulnerability, talking about games where I felt like I was playing safe, playing scared, when I was playing not to lose a game. That happens. … I’ve been in that situation. I was scared to death to lose the game. But then I didn’t like how I looked myself in the mirror after. There’s going to be moments of adversity in these playoffs, moments that we’re behind. We’ve got to believe in ourselves.”
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Ryan’s journey through the NFC playoffs reflected his message to the team. He started the divisional round game against Green Bay in place of Brown at safety, but hesitance led Ryan to miss a critical tackle against Packers running back Aaron Jones in the fourth quarter. That turned into a 51-yard gain. But when Ryan saw another opportunity the next week against Detroit, he successfully jammed St. Brown at one of the title game’s critical junctures.
Ryan’s timely contribution came shortly after the 49ers’ other elder statesman, Gipson, delivered one of his own by forcing a fumble against Detroit running back Jahmyr Gibbs. That was one of the key plays during the 49ers’ furious third-quarter comeback.
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“He has a knack for making really big-time plays,” Lynch said of Gipson last week, pointing to a shoestring tackle of Green Bay receiver Christian Watson the week prior that might’ve saved a touchdown. “We ask him to cover receivers a lot, which is a difficult thing for safeties. He does that at the highest level. He does it quietly. He doesn’t get a lot of acclaim for his play, but man, he deserves it. Never did I think he would give us what he has given us. I’ve stopped looking for him to hit the decline.”
Gipson entered the NFL in 2012, a year ahead of Ryan. The two defensive backs have 354 combined career games between them, and they’ve bonded over this shared wealth of professional experience.
“One of my family members told me during the Packers week that both of us starting safeties have been playing since Obama was in office,” Gipson said Tuesday, laughing. “I thought that was so funny, man. I’ve always been familiar with Logan’s game. I love everything he can do. It’s mutual respect. He’s still as savvy as ever. And people don’t really know what he does behind the scenes. The dude just knows football. It’s cool for us to be able to get together at this point in our career.”
Ryan turns 33 on Friday, so he’ll join Gipson at that age rank before the Super Bowl. Coincidentally, Gipson also has 33 career interceptions. He hopes that number will increase on Sunday against Mahomes, whom he’s already intercepted twice in his career.
“I hope he gets me another one Sunday,” Gipson said. “That would make my life.”
(Top photo of Tashan Gipson Sr. and Logan Ryan: Kevin Sabitus and Ryan Kang / Getty Images)