49ers D-Line Play Fuels Team Success

Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and defensive end Arik Armstead combine on a sack. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

By Howard Balzer

John Lynch had a plan after being named general manager of the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. Armed with a six-year contract, the same length as head coach Kyle Shanahan, Lynch and his personnel staff set out to build a championship defensive line.

The theme was “It’s what’s up front that counts,” which meant adding to a unit that already had first-round picks from 2015 (Arik Armstead, 17th overall) and 2016 (DeForest Buckner (seventh overall).

Solomon Thomas (third overall) arrived in 2017, followed by Nick Bosa (second overall) in 2019 along with the acquisition of franchise player Dee Ford (23rd overall by the Chiefs in 2014) in a trade.

Now, as the 49ers prepare to play the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, five first-round picks on the line are a big reason.

Shanahan said, “As a coach, the hardest thing to handle is going against a tough D-line and that’s been our goal since we got here to try to build it that way. We had some good players to start with and we have had a lot of guys who are good players who are very similar and the two guys we have added to the D-line this year were kind of the two things that we were missing.”

Former NFL linebacker Chad Brown saw what could be possible last spring and summer when he worked as an intern within the Bill Walsh Diversity Fellowship program.

Brown called the defensive line group “literally the most talented room I’ve ever been in. Remember, I was part of that Steelers linebacker corps back in Blitzburgh. We were pretty good. These guys have a chance to be even better.”

Shanahan brought in Robert Saleh as defensive coordinator in 2017 and the final piece for the defensive line came after the 2018 season when Jeff Zgonina was let go and replaced by Kris Kocurek.

Asked what Kocurek does well, Saleh said, “Philosophically for our defense, it’s our responsibility that you eliminate all gray area for the players so he can just go play, and Kocurek has a very, very specific way he teaches. It clears up all the gray area, and when you can put a player into black and white, it just allows them to go fast because they know what’s being asked of them.

“His ability to be detailed, and really teach and drill everything that’s going to happen to him on game day is what makes him a very, very good football coach. If you mess up, he’ll let you know. If you do something better, he’ll let you know. If you do something really well, he’ll let you know. There’s no in between. He doesn’t sugar coat anything. That’s what you really want in a coach. If you’re a player and you can take criticism and strive to get better each and every day, he’s the type of coach you want because he’ll tell you how it is.”

That allowed 17 points or less seven times in the regular season, including a four-game stretch in October in which they allowed a total of 23 points.

Led by Armstead’s 10 sacks, the line accounted for 41 of the team’s 48 sacks, and the defense ranked third in the league in sacks per pass play. The next best three were Bosa with 9.0, Buckner 7.5 and Ford 6.5 despite missing five games because of injury.

The defense was also second in total yards and yards per play, first in net passing yards and passing yards per play, tied for third in first downs allowed and tied for second in third-down stops.

Additionally, opponents reached the red zone only 40 times, the second-fewest in the NFL, and the defense scored five touchdowns, tied for third-most in the league.

It can be argued that the final piece of the impressive puzzle was Bosa. Two unrelated occurrences made it happen.

First, the 2018 season was painful, thanks to a torn ACL suffered by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, which contributed to a 4-12 finish. However, that record landed the 49ers the second pick in the draft. Then, the Arizona Cardinals with the first choice fired head coach Steve Wilks after one season and replaced him with Kliff Kingsbury, who wanted Kyler Murray as his quarterback.

We’ll never know what would have happened had Wilks been retained, but the 49ers wasted no time pouncing on Bosa.

Cornerback Richard Sherman was ebullient in his praise for Bosa. “He’s been so consistent since he got here,” Sherman said. “But I think just his mannerisms, the way he carries himself, the way he practices, his effectiveness play-in and play-out have really been eye-opening for a rookie because you find yourself forgetting that he’s a rookie most of the time, until you really think about it, because he doesn’t play like a rookie, he doesn’t carry himself like a rookie and he doesn’t move, he doesn’t act like a rookie in any way.

“It’s really a testament to him, his family, everybody who’s helped him get to this point and developed his mentality.”

The line received contributions from everyone, including Sheldon Day and late-season additions Anthony Zettel and Earl Mitchell after D.J. Jones and Ronald Blair went on injured reserve. But the big three were clearly Bosa, Buckner and Armstead, the latter two college teammates at Oregon.

They played the most snaps during the regular season – Buckner, 79.2 percent, Bosa 75.8 and Armstead 75.7, with Thomas next at 41.1.

While Bosa was second to Armstead in sacks, the rookie led the team with 16 tackles for loss in the running game, followed by Armstead with 11 and Buckner with nine. The defense totaled 81 tackles for loss with the line accounting for 48. A second-team All-Pro, Buckner led the line in tackles with 61 and the ream in fumble recoveries with four.

Reflecting on the ups and downs he and Armstead had, Buckner said, “We went through a rough patch here the past couple of years. To finally have this year, everything happening the right way and getting to the “big dance.” It’s been a hell of a ride.”

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