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The 49ers defense is chasing perfection—here’s how team says it can actually get better


© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Perfection does not exist in the National Football League—the sport is far too complex, and the world-class athletes playing it are doing so with a level of speed and dynamism which creates unpredictability on every snap. Even the worst teams are comprised of players who are too intelligent and physically imposing to be tyrannized on every single down.

The 49ers know this, but they also know that in order to become a “legendary” defense, as linebacker Kwon Alexander affirms each day, you sometimes need to silence that inner voice doubting the potential to be flawless. It is in this frame of mind which the 49ers defense—after so many years of struggling for competence—now operates, each game pursuing one thing: perfection.

It’s an unattainable goal, as rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw admitted to KNBR after Monday night’s game, but the fact that the 49ers seem remotely close to achieving it is a cosmic shift for one of the NFL’s now elite defenses.

“It’s about the techniques and the details and every now and then, just making sure that we’re all on our assignments,” Greenlaw said of areas for improvement. “It’s about trying to strive for perfection, but in reality, we’ll never get there. But I mean, the fact that we want to be perfect says a lot about the defense and a lot about the character of people, but we just have to keep getting better man, continue to fix on the details, trying to take a good sign and take it to the next level.”

The 49ers have allowed the second-fewest yards per game (257.5 yards), are tied for the second-most defensive turnovers (seven INTs, four fumble recoveries), have allowed the fourth-fewest points per game (14.2 points) and are the only NFL team who haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown this season. By most measures, they are the second-best statistical defense in the NFL, behind only the New England Patriots.

On Monday night, they beat down the Cleveland Browns 31-3 on a national stage. The one opportunity the Browns had to score a touchdown was bobbled away by Antonio Callaway on the goal line and returned for 49 yards on an interception by K’Waun Williams. For as dominant as the defense appeared to be, every defensive player asked about the game was critical of their performance, with the coverage on Williams’ interception one of the points of correction.

Richard Sherman, who had an interception of his own, said the 49ers had multiple coverage busts.

“It’s just correcting mistakes. Just like the play where Callaway, the ball bounced off his hands, there was a huge bust on that play and we’ve got to correct that,” Sherman said. “There were busts on plays where guys got sacks and they cleaned it up. There was a bust on the play where Chubb ran the trap and got 37 yards. That’s what it’s about. You don’t worry about the outcome because you can’t always control that. You can’t control how both sides play, but you can control your execution, you attitude, your effort, how well you execute your job.”

Here’s the Chubb run, when the entire 49ers defense was fooled by a fake pitch to Odell Beckham Jr.

The man who stopped that run from becoming a touchdown was Jimmie Ward, starting (and playing) in his first game this season, something he told KNBR he expected to come sooner than it did. The week prior, Robert Saleh had credited Ward for his talent for tracking, both in the run and pass game. While Tarvarius Moore, Saleh said, was solid in the run game, he struggled making tackles on pass receptions.

Ward’s tackle on Chubb was one of the plays that demands the “eraser,” as Saleh refers to the free safety, to step up and correct the mistake by the rest of the defense. Ward deflected the credit to the culture of the defense.

“You can call it that, or you can just call it a fast 11,” Ward said. “The whole defense getting to the ball.”

Ward, like the rest of his teammates, seemed unsatisfied with the performance, pointing out that the mistakes made by the 49ers on Monday would not fly on Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. That might be equal parts an acknowledgment of the Browns’ putridity and the Rams’ efficiency on offense.

He was hesitant to call Monday’s win a statement win.

“It’s hard to really say,” Ward said. “I feel like we’re heading into the right direction, because we left a lot of mistakes on the field as a defense. I’m not speaking for the offense, so I just feel like we can get better. You know how the NFL is. There are great players that you’re gonna line up against each week. So, Browns was just one week. We ended up winning that week. We made less mistakes than them and we won, but we can’t make as many mistakes against the Rams, because they’re a good football team.”

Asked to clarify what it was that needed correction, Ward pointed to the same busts as Sherman.

“Communication issues,” Ward said. “Left a few busts out there, we can just clean those up and clean up some missed tackles.”

Like Alexander—who pointed to the need to clean up the “little things”—told KNBR, the 49ers feel like they “need” more turnovers.

That’s what we emphasize as a defense, is getting the ball,” Ward said. “We don’t want to three-and-out anybody, we want to actually get the ball. We want a turnover.”

The commitment to turning the ball over could be seen as a platitude—doesn’t every team want to force turnovers?

But there has been evidence of actionable changes made to force the ball out. Fred Warner’s pair of fumble-forcing tomahawk chops against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was new, and Marcell Harris, playing in his first game of the season after being promoted from practice squad, forced a fumble on a desperate, misguided punt return from Beckham Jr.

As Beckham Jr. often does, he held the ball out in one hand, almost teasing the defense to attack him. Harris told KNBR he didn’t want the feeling of playing on Monday night to go away, saying the experience “felt amazing”—even more after forcing a turnover from one of the most hyped wide receivers in the NFL. Harris admitted his eyes lit up when he saw how Beckham Jr. was handling the ball.

“Yeah, I seen him about to reverse field and kind of just turned on the jets to go make something happen and as I got there, I still saw he was holding the ball kind of wide and I had a good attempt to rake it out with a front-tip rip, and I made a play happen,” Harris said. “Just knowing that he’s one of those players that’s going to try and make anything happen with the ball when it gets in his hands, and to have the opportunity to come across him and get that forced fumble, it was a blessing.”

Before Emmanuel Moseley became the starting cornerback opposite Sherman, he was making colossal tackles in the open field on punt- and kick returns, something Harris said the team takes pride in. The effort on special teams is part of the symbiosis that unit has with Saleh and his “all gas, no brake” mentality of playing with violence.

Saleh said before Monday night’s game that he believes it to be more backbreaking to allow 250 yards on the ground (which the 49ers forced the Browns to endure) versus 500 yards in the air. While the 49ers have yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season, Arik Armstead said the focus is “not even just touchdowns,” it’s about getting dominant pressure on the quarterback and limiting any yards on the ground.

Despite the onslaught provided by the defensive line thus, Alexander said the early returns are far from what the group is capable of.

“They’re just getting started man,” Alexander said. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

This overwhelming desire to correct minor mistakes—”the little details” as they’re constantly referred to as—and dominate opposing offenses all comes from Saleh. On Thursday, when asked what can actually be corrected, the defensive coordinator pointed to a central idea of making the field feel “claustrophobic,” and said most of the mistakes that are technique-based and therefore, correctable.

“There’s certain details that we see from a defensive perspective where it may not have been exposed on tape, but you can visually see that there’s a hole in the defense and if it’s not fixed, 99 out of 100 times it can be fixed with proper technique,” Saleh said. “And so, just making sure that guys hone in and are always looking at their technique, always looking at where their eye placement is, always understanding what they’re being asked to do and what they’re being asked to stop so that way they can be tighter in coverage.”

Shrink the field, that’s the m.o.

“The whole idea of making sure that offenses just feel claustrophobic with regards to the way the football field feels to them,” Saleh said. “When we watch tape, our job is to try to make it feel as tight as possible to an offense and you only do that by playing with, like I said, effort, great technique and violence so that field just feels really, really small. How can you turn that 51 and a third [yards] or whatever it is, how do you make that feel like it’s 45 yards wide? You just keep trying to condense the field and you do that with speed, effort, technique, all that stuff.”


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