Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Shanahan focused on building a top-ranked defense when he and John Lynch joined the 49ers

Aug 14, 2019 at 10:26 AM--

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is considered by many to be one of the best offensive minds in the game. His creativity and play-calling have shown that. Other fullbacks in the league will often approach Kyle Juszczyk after games to tell him how lucky he is to get to play for Shanahan. Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle has often lauded his head coach's creativity in getting players open.

When Shanahan arrived in the Bay Area, you would think he wanted to build a high-octane offense immediately. He probably did, but another focus was creating a top defense. In fact, that seemed like a priority after Shanahan and general manager John Lynch used their first three selections during their first-ever draft with the team on defensive players.

Shanahan joined KNBR on Tuesday and discussed the vision for the defense.

"That's been the goal here, is we wanted to build a big defense when we got here," Shanahan said on the "Tolbert, Krueger and Brooks" show. "One that could be a top-5 defense. We knew there had been some resources put into the D-line before we got here, and that's what we've tried to continue to add. It's taken until now to really get those outside spots to really help our inside talent. We feel we have that now."

Those resources that were already in place were names like DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, both of whom were first-round picks in each of the two offseasons before Shanahan's arrival. The added resources are players like Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, who were added this offseason.

The 49ers roster has undergone a massive overhaul since Shanahan and Lynch took over. The transition forced a lot of younger players into action right away. With more starters in place and Shanahan's and Lynch's vision taking form, that experience for those players will end up being invaluable. And the 49ers now have more depth because of it.

"We feel our younger guys are better because of that," Shanahan said. "And we feel we have the capability to be a top-10 defense, and maybe in that top-5, especially if you stay healthy, and that's what we're expecting."

The defense was a record-breaking unit last season, but not in a way worth bragging about. The team set a new NFL record for the fewest forced turnovers in a single season with seven. That total, by the way, is four fewer than the previous record, which was set by the Baltimore Colts in 1982 and has been tied three times since, but never broken — until last year.

Still, Shanahan is convinced the defense is headed for better days and has the potential to be one of the best in the league.

"They always base that stuff off of yards and everything, but the biggest thing is we've got to get turnovers," Shanahan said. "We've improved a lot since we've gotten here in terms of stopping people in yards. I think when we got here, it was pretty bad. I think it was 32nd on both sides. And you improve in areas, but your record's not going to improve until you can get the ball."

Another embarrassing statistic? The 49ers only had two interceptions last season, which was also a single-season record. The coach feels the recent upgrades will help in that area.

"The fact that we had only two interceptions last year, that broke a record," Shanahan continued. "That doesn't happen much. Usually, you get more than that just by luck alone. But the main way you get interceptions is pass rush, and by adding the pass rush in, that makes quarterbacks a little more timid, a little scared. They aren't as patient. They sail that ball, and you get a lot more tips and overthrows. That's where we're going to get our picks, and I know I can see it in camp, big time, comparing to the last couple of years."

Shanahan even saw improvement in his squad on Saturday night against the Dallas Cowboys. Last year, when the two teams played each other during the preseason, the 49ers coach felt like his players were being out-hit by the Cowboys. San Francisco ended up with the 24-21 win, but Shanahan credits that to his team out-executing Dallas in the two-minute drill.

"But [on Saturday night], we won, I thought, because we were a more physical team," Shanahan added. "That's something we'd like to have now if we can get better at the execution. And that's what we're going to work on every day, but that's tough when you don't have the strikers and that mentality. That's what I feel like our team has now."

You can listen to the entire conversation with Shanahan below.

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