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Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Resurgent pass rush, Charvarius Ward lead 49ers defense to dominant showing vs. Seahawks

Nov 23, 2023 at 10:55 PM--

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After going through a dry spell in late October, it's safe to say the San Francisco 49ers have righted the ship on defense.

The 49ers went through a brief slump of sorts on defense towards the end of October when they gave up big passing performances to quarterbacks Kirk Cousins (378 yards, two touchdowns) in a Week 7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings and Joe Burrow (283 yards, two touchdowns) in a Week 8 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Then, after a bye week in early November, the defense surged to give up just two touchdowns over a three-game span that has seen the 49ers notch one-sided victories over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks.

The latest win came on Thanksgiving night, when the 49ers held the Seahawks to zero first quarter yardage while sacking them six times in a 31-13 win in Seattle. Standouts in the game included the defensive line, which has done the bulk of the work in collecting 15 sacks over the current three-game winning streak, and cornerback Charvarius "Mooney" Ward, who shadowed Seahawks receiver D.K. Metcalf and held him in check while collecting three passes defended.

What's been different for the 49ers in November? For starters, the defense has improved personnel-wise due to the bye week acquisition of defensive end Chase Young in a trade with the Washington Commanders. And things have gotten better all around, from the pass rush production to the secondary.

"I just think how much we're rushing as a group has changed," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the win in Seattle. "I just think the guys after we came back from the bye week, I just feel like we've moved a little bit better. Obviously, adding Chase helps to the group, just the depth of it.

"When we weren't getting all the sacks, I still thought we were getting to the quarterback and hitting them, but it takes a whole group to get those numbers, and I think we've been doing that. And I think our coverage has gone better too. Sometimes you get some coverage sacks, too, and when you make a quarterback take a couple of hitches with four guys going pretty hard at him, usually that's the result."

Leading the way on Thanksgiving was Ward, whose performance resulted in him being one of a few 49ers players to be given a postgame turkey leg by NBC. Ward told reporters after the game that he wasn't originally expected to shadow Metcalf but the plan changed.

"The game plan wasn't for me to follow him," Ward said. "Shanahan was like, 'Why not? We need him to.' They told me to do it and I was up to the task. I felt like I had a pretty good game."

Ward's performance against the Seahawks drew praise from Shanahan as well as a number of his teammates. Shanahan called Ward's performance "awesome," saying Ward was up to the task of defending the multiple deep shots the Seahawks attempted with Metcalf.

"You need a lot of ability, and they're going to try to get him the ball and they're going to take their shots outside, and you want to put your best corner on him," Shanahan said. "And Mooney was ready for that."

Defensive end Nick Bosa said Ward's performance against the Seahawks should have come as no surprise considering how he's performed throughout the year.

"He has no choice, but I think he's done that against all the number ones this year and we have immense confidence in him," Bosa said. "I think he's playing at an all-pro level. I don't know if the stats are there necessarily, but if you watch the tape, he's as good as it gets."

Meanwhile, Bosa was among a slew of defensive linemen who stood out against the Seahawks as he put up two sacks, five quarterback hits and a key tackle-for-loss to cause a turnover on downs on the Seahawks' final possession. His explanation for why the pass rush has been playing better was fairly simple.

"Just execution, getting back to how we rush, quarterbacks are holding it a little longer," Bosa said. "Our back end is playing awesome. Adding Chase, all those things."

Bosa was seldom the only 49ers defensive lineman to get to Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith, as he was joined in the backfield by players such as Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave, and Kevin Givens, who all chipped in on combined sacks. Others were in the mix as well, making it hard to tell who should have been awarded with sacks in the end.

"After the game, nobody has any idea what their stats are, so it's a good problem to have," Bosa said.

The defense will have their work cut out for them in the next game when they travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles in a long-awaited rematch of last season's NFC Championship game. They've taken a couple hits in the secondary recently, losing starting safety Talanoa Hufanga to a torn ACL against the Buccaneers and backup safety George Odum to a bicep injury against the Seahawks. But the rest of the defense seems to be in a groove, and there's no reason to think it will stop anytime soon.

"I guess ever since we got Chase Young, things kind of flipped around, didn't they? But it's a combination of things," linebacker Fred Warner said after the win over the Seahawks Thursday. "Just us playing together as a unit, you know, the rush and the coverage. Winning on third down has been crucial for us. You see today, I think they were like one for nine on third down. "That's winning football all day long. So we got to keep it going. There's still room for improvement out there. I feel like we really could have snuffed them out, but I'll take what we did."

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