© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — Like many 49ers fans, Robert Saleh is anxious to see how the much-maligned San Francisco pass rush performs in his second year as the team’s defensive coordinator. The 49ers finished 26th in the league with 30 sacks in 2017, and Elvis Dumervil, who led the team in sacks, was not-resigned this offseason.
So far, Saleh likes what he has seen.
“I thought we rushed the passer really well against Dallas as a unit,” Saleh said after Sunday’s practice. “Obviously, there are things we need op clean up with communication, but seeing that transfer over into another offensive line (is encouraging).”
The 49ers recorded two sacks in Thursday’s preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys, one of which came during the opening drive. DeForest Buckner tossed Cowboys rookie guard Connor Williams aside with an “arm over” move to penetrate the backfield. Buckner got a hand on Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, and Solomon Thomas cleaned it up for the sack.
— DLineVids (@DLineVids) August 10, 2018
Buckner, who played just six snaps Thursday night, has been dominant throughout training camp. He has used a similar swim move with regularity and success against 49ers guards and tackles.
Buckner’s promise isn’t anything new— it is widely believed that he has Defensive Player of the Year potential. The rest of the 49ers’ defensive line is comprised of players edge players hungry for opportunity and breakout seasons that have eluded their careers so far. That includes recent acquisitions (Jeremiah Attaochu and Cassius Marsh), Chip Kelly holdovers (Arik Armstead, who continues to sit out with a hamstring injury, and Eli Harold), and Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft.
The new, formerly unforeseen standout in this group has become rookie seventh-round draft pick Jullian Taylor. On Thursday, he started at the big end spot and played well from start to finish. He recorded a sack, tackle for loss, and two quarterback hits in 32 snaps. He was consistently disruptive, using his strength and leverage — the traits his college and high school coaches identify as his biggest strengths — throughout the game.
— Dylan DeSimone (@DylanADeSimone) August 10, 2018
“He took a big step (Thursday),” Saleh said Sunday. “Jullian, his arrow is going up, he is doing everything right, he plays violent, relentless, fought his tail off against that big o-line with the ones… As the game wore on, the expectation is that he becomes more dominant, and he did.”
Taylor is still relatively new to football — he started playing as a high school senior and logged just 15 career college games at Temple — and is still learning how to use his hands more effectively, according to Saleh.
Perhaps no position group could benefit more from an unexpected bloomer like Taylor than the defensive line. No 49ers player has more than 10 career sacks.
Joshua Garnett returns
Right guard Joshua Garnett has missed the past eight practices with a cryptic knee injury. He returned to practice Thursday, but he did not participate in team drills.
The sight of Garnett in pads has to be reassuring for everyone involved, including head coach Kyle Shanahan, whose recent comments suggest he was unaware of the nature of Garnett’s setback.
“I don’t think there was an exact, there’s not an exact injury,” Shanahan said Sunday. “I think you could ask him exactly about that. He had big issues last year. We knew he was coming into this year and he hurt it in a practice. He took an anti-inflammatory to get some of the swelling out and when that happens, and there was some swelling, we just wanted to rest it. We’ve got an extra week here, which was the plan to give him a week more of rest which I think helped him.”
The right guard spot is the only position devoid of an entrenched starter, aside from punter. Mike Person started Thursday’s game and did not allow a quarterback hurry in 40 snaps. Jonathan Cooper did not play, as he also recovers from a knee injury, but he practiced Sunday and logged a few snaps in 11-on-11 drills.
The scare of Sunday’s practice surrounded running back Jerick McKinnon, who hurt his right knee in practice. Fortunately for the 49ers, post-practice MRI results came back negative.
Among the 49ers players who sat out Thursday’s game and practiced Sunday are Cooper, Fred Warner, Jeremiah Attoachu, Brock Coyle, Trent Taylor, Marcell Harris, and Richard Sherman, who participated in individual drills. Shanahan said he would be surprised if Sherman plays Friday.
Thomas, who suffered a concussion Thursday, did not participate in Sunday’s practice. Wearing a jersey and shorts, he watched the session.
Malcolm Smith (hamstring) was the first 49ers player to suffer an injury Thursday night. He did not practice Sunday, though he watched on the sidelines and later worked individually with Korey Toomer on pass coverage drills post-practice.
Smith entered camp on the physically unable to perform list with a leg injury he sustained during training. He returned on the third day of camp and progressively played more snaps ahead of Thursday’s preseason opener. Smith is the projected starter at the middle linebacker spot, but he has struggled to stay healthy since signing with the 49ers last offseason. He spent the entire 2017 season in injured reserve with a torn pectoral.
Saleh said he hasn’t been told the specifics of Smith’s injury, but it is not considered serious.
Notable plays from practice
The offense started slow but found its groove as Sunday’s practice progressed. Jimmy Garoppolo made several impressive throws, including…
-A 25-yard sideline completion to Marquise Goodwin, who got behind D.J. Reed for a big gain.
-A sideline lob to Aldrick Robinson on a go route. Robinson beat Ahkello Witherspoon, snagged the pass, and eventually stepped out of bounds as he ran toward the end zone.
-A touchdown pass to Trent Taylor over the middle during red-zone drills.
Garoppolo’s lone mental error came during the move-the-ball period. As he flushed out to his left, he forced a side-armed throw to Mostert. Free safety Adrian Colbert dove and picked off the pass.
Joe Williams misses practice, mourns brother-in-law’s death
Second-year running back Joe Williams did not practice Sunday as he attended the funeral of brother-in-law Godfrey Jones Jr., who was shot and killed Monday in Newark, New Jersey. He was 25 years old.
The 49ers practice Monday morning before getting a day off as they travel to Houston Tuesday. They will practice with the Texans Wednesday and Thursday and have a walk-through Friday. The teams will play Saturday at 5 p.m in their second preseason game this year.