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At the conclusion of the 2017 season, Anthony Zettel had concluded a 6.5-sack, 43-tackle (11 for a loss and a forced fumble) sophomore campaign with the Detroit Lions after being drafted in the sixth round a year prior out of Penn State.
To put that season in perspective, DeForest Buckner, who was just named a second-team All-Pro, had 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and 61 combined tackles (nine for a loss) this regular season.
Then, the Lions switched to a 3-4 front and Zettel was sent on his way, waived as a victim of a scheme shift. He was quickly picked up by the Cleveland Browns and played in 15 games (he started all 16 with the Lions a season prior), but took a career-low 158 snaps (had 215 his rookie year and 753 in his second season) and did not start a single game.
After that 2018 season, Zettel was signed by the Cincinnatti Bengals (2-14), then cut, then re-signed on October 24, then cut, again, on December 17. With two weeks remaining in the season, having been cut by the NFL’s worst team, Zettel told KNBR he was not optimistic he’d be picked up. But a week later, the 49ers cut defensive end Jeremiah Valoaga and replaced him with Zettel.
“I mean two weeks left in the season, you never expect to get picked up, especially by the best team in the league,” Zettel said. “So I was shocked, but I was also like, ‘Man, what an opportunity.'”
In the 49ers’ 26-21 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17, Zettel took 29 snaps on defense, 39 percent of the total defensive snaps. All of sudden, he is behind only Nick Bosa (and Dee Ford, if healthy) in the pecking order as a true defensive end.
San Francisco’s hobbled defensive front gave Zettel new life. While he was on a pair of 9-7 Lions teams in his first two seasons (the 2016 team lost to the Seahawks in the Wild Card round), he hasn’t been with a winning organization in nearly two years.
The shift from the NFL’s worst team in the Bengals, to arguably the league’s best in the 49ers (13-3), is not slight.
“It’s just a whole culture shock,” Zettel said. “Everybody’s positive, encouraging. Random people say, ‘Hi,’ everybody doesn’t have their heads in the dirt and make coming to work miserable, so everybody here has been great, happy. Obviously, it helps when everybody’s winning. So, there is a culture in the locker room, everywhere, it’s just great.”
It’s not just the energy that Zettel appreciates. The 49ers’ wide-nine defensive scheme allows edge rushers to run in free space and take advantage of their speed and power moves. Zettel said he feels at home in the scheme, under defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.
“I’m just glad to be back in this type of get off defense, just trying to be relentless and just go balls to the wall,” Zettel said. “That’s kind of the game I play so hopefully we keep translating, we keep marching on this playoffs and go deep. I just want to give these guys everything I’ve got.”