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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


Film From the Field House: Five Moment That Defined the 49ers’ Defense

Bret Rumbeck
Jan 30, 2020 at 9:20 AM


The worst-to-first story is a standard plotline to a thousand feel-good films. The opening scene shows an unorganized team with ragged uniforms and one player more interested in picking dandelions than making plays. The coach is reading the paper, while the parents can hardly muster the effort to applaud.

The film begins its climb when a new coach takes a leadership role. He makes immediate changes, and the team starts to come together. They all learn from their mistakes and end up becoming the darling of the league the next season.

This year's 2019 San Francisco 49ers are the subject to that film, illustrated best by the transformation of their defense.

Last season, the 49ers' defense made watching football difficult. The team could hardly generate a pass rush, let alone set the edge to force a running back to cut into a linebacker. The secondary was blowing routine coverages at least once per game.

The 49ers' defense generated seven turnovers, which set a new all-time record for the fewest in a season, and was the rotten cherry on top of an exhausting sixteen games.

Despite the dismal outcome, there was still a light that fueled the fire for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. His scheme was sound, he was just missing the right pieces.

Cornerback Richard Sherman made that point during a press conference on January 24, 2020.

"He's (Saleh) calling a lot of the same plays. He's scheming it up just as he always has. I guess he has more talent, and I guess people are executing the calls that he calls. That was one of the things where I would get frustrated with his criticisms because people were like, 'oh, my God, he's calling a terrible game.' I was like, 'well, he's calling a great game and poor execution more than anything.' You call a blitz, and they don't blitz. You call a cover two, they play cover three."

Three key additions, linebacker Kwon Alexander, defensive end Dee Ford, and rookie defensive end Nick Bosa, finally gave Saleh what he needed to see consistent success.

There are many defensive moments to choose from this year, but here was what defined the 49ers' season.

5. Week 3: 1st Quarter – 3rd and 5 at the PIT 25 (5:43)


The fire zone blitz Saleh called early in the Week 3 win over Pittsburgh was nothing new, and it resulted in a forgotten incomplete pass. In fact, the team will file it away on a hard drive and place it in a dark room, never to think about it again.

Coming into Week 3, the 49ers' defense already had eight sacks, four interceptions, and two defensive touchdowns. Already it had improved, but this game was a new test for Saleh. The 49ers' offense had turned the ball over in the first quarter, on its way to five total turnovers and an afternoon of sloppy football.

Saleh and his defense must have known any chance of a victory was on their shoulders.

No longer would the 49ers take it easy on the opposing offense. Saleh could send four men and collapse the pocket, or get aggressive and send a fire zone blitz to confuse and frighten second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph.

While the 49ers' offense struggled, the 49ers' defense held the Steelers to 239 total yards, generated two turnovers, and stated to the NFL it would not be ignored.

4. Nick Bosa vs. Baker Mayfield


For reasons known only to the NFL marketing department, the Cleveland Browns were supposed to be a good football team in 2019.

Granted, the Browns did beat the Baltimore Ravens soundly a week before traveling to Santa Clara to face the 49ers on Monday Night Football.

But was there ever a doubt the 49ers would have a challenge?

Bosa decided the Monday Night game would be his official coming-out party. He throttled the Browns' offensive line all evening, sacking Mayfield twice, making three run stops, and forcing a fumble.

Between the flag wave celebration and chasing Mayfield back onto an airplane, Bosa's post-game comments added to the new rabid nature of the 49ers' defense.

Q: Off microphone.
Bosa: I was kind of trying to talk - I don't usually talk - but this game, he had it coming. But he (Mayfield) didn't say one word back.

Q: What did you say?
Bosa: I don't know, I was just screaming his name like, "Baker! Baker! You good? C'mon, pick it up! We want a challenge."

3. The Week 12 Embarrassment of Aaron Rodgers


The NFL thought it had a rating bonanza when it flexed the Week 12 49er/Packer game from 1:25 pm to the Sunday night time slot.

What it received was the 49ers' defense embarrassing quarterback Aaron Rodgers on national television.

There isn't one specific screenshot that can define the game. Instead, Rodgers' lack of statistics tells the story.

Rodgers completed 20 passes for 81 net pass yards. He was sacked five times and finished with a 75.8 passer rating. This fall, check your local paper on Saturday morning, and I guarantee a high school quarterback will have better numbers than Rodgers did in Week 12.

Further, the 49ers held the Packers to 117 yards on the ground and under 200 total offensive yards.

Rodgers led a drive in the third quarter that resulted in eight points, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and tight end George Kittle responded immediately with a 61-yard touchdown pass.

2. The Play of the Defensive Line


Initially, I had another Bosa moment in the second spot, but that would ignore what the 49ers' defensive line has accomplished.

For the past few seasons, I've hoped the San Francisco 49ers' defensive line would be the team's north star. My hope went unfulfilled until this season.

Ford and Bosa were the speedy, aggressive edge players Saleh's system needed. Their work allowed defensive linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner to continue their high level of play.

Last year, a professional football writer noted that Armstead wasn't playing good football. It was an irrational argument written without substance or fact and easily debunked as a fairy tale.

Armstead increased his numbers across the board in 2019, including a 90.0 grade from Pro Football Focus - 15.2 points better than last year. He finished this season with 13 sacks, 47 hurries, 38 tackles, and 40 stops.

Sherman was asked during his press conference on January 29, 2020 about the 49ers' defensive line and a play from this season where he thanked the defensive line for helping out the secondary.

"Oh, the Minnesota game. I forget which part of the game, but it was Arik's (Armstead) sack. It was a max-protect look, and they thought they could block Arik one-on-one. Mistake. But (Stefon) Diggs had run a double move, and he had run it really well. He had got it. But we didn't have to worry about it because he (quarterback Kirk Cousins) got hit in the face. As soon as it happened, I went to Arik and said, 'Man, you saved the day, again.'"

1. Greenlaw's Goal-Line Stand


Any Faithful fan older than 40 is well aware of the NFL Films recap of Super Bowl XVI. Narrator John Facenda told the story of a critical goal-line stand the 49ers made late in the third quarter.

Bengals' quarterback Ken Anderson hit running back Charles Alexander in the right flat. But, as Facenda said, "Danny Bunz dropped him 12 inches short of the goal line."

The fickle football gods like to see stories repeat themselves.

The 2019 49ers found themselves in Seattle on Week 17, playing the last regular-season game of the season on NBC. This time, it was for the NFC West crown.

The 49ers jumped out on Seattle early, but in typical Seahawk fashion, the hated neighbors to the north clawed their way back.

Seattle drove within one yard of a game-winning touchdown, but drew a strange delay of game penalty, pushing it back five yards.

One final play with 12 seconds left on the clock would determine who would win the west.

Thankfully, rookie Dre Greenlaw gave no ground and no quarter to tight end Jacob Hollister. Greenlaw firmly planted his toes on the goal line and drove Hollister into the artificial turf of CenturyLink Field.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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