Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

49ers-Rams: Talanoa Hufanga’s latest big play sends 49ers defense to elite performance

Oct 3, 2022 at 10:06 PM--

The 49ers defense had been having a strong season before they faced the Los Angeles Rams on Monday night, but thanks in part to the latest game-changing play from an emerging star in second-year safety Talanoa Hufanga, they were able to put together a performance to remember in a 24-9 win.

The defense was coming off two impressive performances heading into the evening -- a 27-7 win over the Seahawks in Week 2 and a solid showing in an 11-10 loss to the Broncos in Week 3 -- but they lamented the fact they weren't able to get any takeaways against the Broncos to help seal a win while their offense was struggling to score points. That changed against the Rams, as they came away with two key turnovers, the biggest of which came on an interception for a touchdown from Hufanga to give the 49ers a 24-9 fourth quarter lead.

"At halftime, we knew it was going to take a big play like that, and no better time -- I think it was the fourth quarter -- for Huf to make that play," defensive end Nick Bosa said after the win. "We just try to reiterate that over and over again because that's how you win games."

The interception was the second of the season for Hufanga, who has been making big plays and putting together strong performances throughout the first four games. It's not much of a surprise anymore to see Hufanga making pivotal plays, and while his performance isn't something fans may have expected, the 49ers started to see signs of a star in the making during his rookie season in 2021.

"He was already (an impact player) last year, honestly," linebacker Fred Warner said Monday night. "He just didn't have as big of a role as he has this year. He was all over the place and you could see moments where he was just the guy. We knew he was a player all along, and now he's really taken a hold of his role and run away with it."

Hufanga's interception came on a 1st-and-10 after the Rams moved across midfield with under seven minutes to play. He jumped in front of a pass from Matthew Stafford intended for wide receiver Cooper Kupp, juggled the ball a bit before securing possession, then ran 52 yards to the end zone to give the 49ers a 15-point lead.

It was a terrific play by Hufanga, even if he was modest about it to the point where he said he was afraid Stafford was going to run him down.

"We were just in man coverage, locked up with the tight end, and they'd just been running screens all night," Hufanga said. "I kind of saw a different release than I'm used to, and instead of going and following my man, I just turned my head and the ball kind of dropped in my face, I ain't gonna lie. I thought Stafford was going to catch me. I ain't gonna lie. My 40 time doesn't help when it comes to that."

Hufanga has made a big leap in his second season and is putting together the type of performance that will get him Pro Bowl consideration if he can keep it up over the course of 17 games. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters Monday night that it's rare for a second-year player to show the level of confidence and command Hufanga is displaying this season, but it shouldn't come as a surprise after the success he had as a college player at USC.

"I think it is unusual," Shanahan said. "But I think that's the type of guy he is. I think if you ask people back at SC, that was his style. It was similar. He plays the game very well. The more guys you have like that, the better."

Shanahan also praised Hufanga for not hesitating when he saw the chance to make the play, even if it was a risk for him to jump in front of the pass.

"It's a play that they run a lot," Shanahan said. "It's a play that we ran a lot. It's a really scary one to tee off on. You better be right. And whether you're playing with vision, watching the quarterback, watching the tackle come out, watching the blocking scheme, I think anyone who has seen Huf play this year and even last year, the guy doesn't hesitate. If you do that, you better make some very good educated guesses or it's not long before you give up the big plays and keep both teams in the game. That's what Huf's been really impressive with this year."

Hufanga has been one of the most valuable players on defense for the 49ers this season, but he'll be the first to say there's still room for him to get better. He'll also be the first to praise the 49ers for helping him develop after giving him a chance when they selected him in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

"Honestly, confidence is still building," Hufanga said. "I couldn't tell you that each player on the team is fully confident. You build it every game that you're in, all the way until it's your last snap and your last game ever. But where I'm very fortunate and I'm not trying to get all emotional and stuff -- I'm very fortunate to have this staff. this organization is just a blessing to me. The guys on the team and on the sidelines, they continue to support me. And Coach Kyle, he's just giving me a lot of confidence to go out there. He says it in the meetings. I'm a young guy. I'm only 22, so I've just got to keep going."

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