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With impressive string of practices, 49ers pass rush slowly taking shape



© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA — One common complaint of the 49ers’ offseason is that they did little to bolster their 26th-ranked pass rush in 2017. Their one player move was signing edge rusher Jeremiah Attaochu, who spent the past two seasons buried behind Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa in the Los Angeles Chargers depth chart.

But the little-known acquisition that is tasked with improving the unit is Chris Kiffin. He is the son of Monte, one of the great defensive minds in NFL history, and the brother of Lane, the former Raiders head coach who now coaches Florida Atlantic University. The Niners created a ‘pass rush specialist’ position specifically for Kiffin.

Since he has arrived, he has instilled a simple message: rush as a group, not individually.

In order to crystallize this, Kiffin has shown the 49ers defensive line tape of the dominant Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenses that his father, Monte, coached. Sure, the front-seven on their Super Bowl XXXVII-winning team boasted four 2002 Pro Bowlers, including Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. But Kiffin wanted to show the current 49ers pass rush how timing and chemistry yield dominance.

“Their chemistry was perfect— also their effort,” Solomon Thomas said after Tuesday’s practice. “Those guys went after it every year. They were one of the best defenses in NFL history and just seeing how hard they played (resonated).”

“(Kiffin) is a great teacher,” Thomas added. “He’s very in the details, step by step, how to see things, how to read things, and how to react.

When Kiffin was hired in February, just a couple months removed from the 2017 season, he encountered DeForest Buckner training and working on technique by himself at the Santa Clara facilities. It was a reinforcing image for Kiffin, who planned to build the unit around Buckner, a massive, sprawling force in the middle of the line.

“We have a guy inside in Buckner that’s, in my opinion, going to be elite,” Kiffin said in March. “Any time you have an elite player, you can build around that. That’s the first thing you have to do.”

So far, so good.

Through the opening five days of training camp, the pass rush has been one of the positive breakthroughs. Kyle Shanahan said the defense held the advantage throughout each of the opening two practices. The pass rush has steadily improved ever since.

On Sunday, Jeremiah Attaochu, Eli Harold, Cassius Marsh, Solomon Thomas, and Ronald Blair all got backfield pressure that would have resulted in sacks, had hitting the quarterback been allowed. Reuben Foster and Jimmie Ward also blitzed Garoppolo and knocked the ball out of his hand.

“They felt very fast,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said later that day.

The pass rush was even better Tuesday, thanks to Buckner, who sacked Garoppolo on consecutive plays. Thomas added one shortly after.

Shanahan said he was “extremely excited” with the pass rush after Friday’s practice. He said he felt “the same, if not better” about Tuesday’s session.

“I’ve been real happy with that group,” Shanahan said Tuesday. “I think all our guys, their technique and their craft, they’ve really honed in on it. And it’s showing to me they’re becoming harder to block.”

Thomas, Buckner, Earl Mitchell, and Armstead — who is scheduled to miss a couple weeks with a hamstring injury — have consistently started, with Harold, Marsh, Attaochu, and Blair platooning at the weak-side edge spot. Despite the lack of career production — no 49ers players has more than 10 career sacks — they have plenty of outside speed that can be maximized with Buckner working in the middle. Shanahan also commented that the coaching staff is considering moving Buckner to the edge periodically.

Rushing as a unit means using various stunts to get to the backfield. Saleh said he wants to ensure each player’s role is defined to simplify things.

“We could’ve done a lot better eliminating some of that gray area and really defining roles for everybody so that they can rush better as a unit (last year),” Saleh said last week.

The 2017 unit compiled just 30 sacks, and leading sacker Elvis Dumervil was not re-signed this offseason. Buckner had just three sacks, but he led all interior defensive linemen with 19 quarterback pressures — a statistic that more accurately measures effect, in Saleh’s eyes.

“Sacks are probably the most overrated stat to me,” Saleh said. “It’s about pressuring the quarterback and making him feel very uncomfortable and increasing our pressure rate.”

The 49ers brass felt another year with the current pass rushing unit would generate improved results. Keep in mind this unit, like the 49ers as a whole, is very young. Buckner and Harold are the only players returning for their third 49ers’ training camp, with Marsh and Attaochu entering their first. The first impressions of the former Charger have been positive.

“Attaochu is relentless,” Saleh said. “He’s very, very business-like. He’s a lot more nimble, if that’s the word, than I thought he’d be. He’s very athletic. Very, very athletic. He is very determined, so we’re excited to have him.”