SANTA CLARA – Just like in the glory years, the 49ers offense always garnered the attention and stole the headlines. That’s happened with the team winning five of the last six games and the surprising development of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. However, the defense has also been stout over that period.
The run game in particular has been stingy, with the 49ers holding opponents under 100 yards rushing for four straight games. They’ve done it despite injuries on three levels of the defense. Team defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said stopping the run is always the first priority of his defense and he attributes the success to greater comfort among his players.
“When you look at from the Dallas game, the Dallas game was the culmination of all the injuries in terms of guys just coming in and out of the lineup,” Saleh said. “Since then we’ve been able to field the same guys over and over and over again. There is so much value in being able to play with the same person next to you and being able to play in a spot that you’re comfortable with for consecutive weeks. Because you’re going to see the same things over and over again. Your communication’s going to be the same thing over and over again.”
Even with the injuries, the 49ers are still strong up the spine of their defense with nose tackle Earl Mitchell, defensive end DeForest Buckner, linebackers Brock Coyle and Reuben Foster and safeties Eric Reid and Adrian Colbert.
Also, the 49ers standard defensive lineup features an five-players defensive line and usually has eight players in the box. Saleh says the next phase of the development is building the team along the edges, especially on third down.
Building a pass rush from the outside will be a domino effect in the team’s defensive improvement.
“You get those guys to the middle of your defense,” Saleh said. “I think that’s good enough to get you to third down. The edges, your corners and your edge rushers are what get you off the field. They’re the ones that get you off in two-minute. They’re the ones that win in the red zone. And so, from that regard it is a domino effect. We get to third down very, very easily. We’ve built leads here over the second half of the year. Now we need to as a defense, we need to learn how to close. We need to learn how to close the door on third-and-12 where there is zero chance an offense can get a first down.”
Building the edges of the defense is still under construction for this defense where the 49ers have yet groom consistent cornerbacks and develop pass rush.