© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — The 49ers’ pass rush is a work in progress. Through the first two preseason games, the outside rushers summoned the same lifeless images of last year, when they produced just 30 sacks, the 26th-most in the league. They had two sacks in the preseason opener and none in the second game.
One reason for the lack of success so far, Jeremiah Attaochu says, is that edge rushers won’t unleash their arsenal of rush moves so there isn’t tape for opponents to go off when the regular season comes around.
“With pass rush, it’s between you and the offensive lineman,” Attaochu said. “You do save your best stuff (for the regular season).”
The San Francisco coaching staff has continued to show its faith in the current group’s potential, choosing not to draft an edge rusher, re-signing Cassius Marsh, picking up Arik Armstead’s fifth-year option, signing Attaochu, and seemingly staying put despite all the public hoopla about pursuing disgruntled Oakland Raiders star Khalil Mack. No current 49ers player has more than 10 career sacks.
Since the 49ers hired Chris Kiffin as their pass rush specialist in February, his grand plan has been to build the line around defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. The double-teams he consistently attracts will give the San Francisco edge rushers all the one-on-ones they could want. Saleh openly refers to Buckner as the defensive line’s best player — and there is no arguing it. He led all NFL interior defensive linemen last season with 19 quarterback hits.
The 49ers plan to help combat a potentially struggling pass rush is by situationally deploying Buckner on the edge in 2018, news he gladly accepted. He has experience playing both inside and outside. Buckner has a sack goal in mind for this year, though he won’t disclose it.
One positive breakthrough of the first two preseason games is the emergence of interior linemen D.J. Jones and Sheldon Day. They totaled a combined eight tackles and two forced fumbles last Saturday. Pair them with Solomon Thomas, Buckner, and Earl Mitchell, and the interior is the most talented part of the line.
“We feel really good about the interior of our D-Line,” Saleh said. “The edge guys, they’re coming along.”
The depth at interior, depending on whether Day and Jones get opportunities in the regular season, could allow the 49ers to try Buckner on the edge in specific packages.
“When you have a guy like Buck who, in our opinion, is one of the better inside guys in this entire league,” Saleh said, “I think to make a living outside is not what you want to do, but to sprinkle him out there every once in a while just to try to find matchups will be good for him.”
Ultimately, the 49ers will have to find contributions from their slew of pass rushers, including Marsh, Eli Harold, Dekoda Watson, Pita Taumoepenu, and Attaochu. Armstead, rookie Jullian Taylor, and newly signed Chris Jones will have to garner pressure at the big end spot, too. Thomas, who has slowly worked his way back after suffering a concussion in the preseason opener, figures to see more work on the inside, his more natural position, in his second year.
“The main thing we talk about is when you get a one on one, you’ve got to win,” Saleh said.
The 49ers defensive coordinator said the structure and communication among the group are coming along. Attaochu, the line’s newest member, said he feels the chemistry is being built.
“It’s moving in the right direction,” Saleh said. “They’re starting to understand each other a little bit more. Now, it’s time for them to start expecting a little bit of production.”