Rodgers says pass rush drives the 49ers’ defense
SANTA CLARA — Remember that 2018 49ers defense? The one that set an NFL record in futility with just seven takeaways?
Aaron Rodgers does, because the star quarterback and the Green Bay Packers played San Francisco on a Monday night last October. They won that game, 33-30, thanks to one of Rodgers’ 15 career fourth-quarter comebacks.
That’s notable given Rodgers and the Packers are coming to Levi’s Stadium for a critical Sunday night game against a defense that’s improved dramatically, particularly at forcing turnovers.
The 49ers enter the weekend third in the NFL with 22 takeaways in 10 games, more than three times their total in 16 games last season.
Rodgers, having watched the coach’s film of each 49ers game this year, didn’t hesitate when asked by reporters in Green Bay this week about the difference in San Francisco’s defense.
“Pass rush. It’s definitely pass rush,” Rodgers said.
“When you can add Dee Ford through free agency or a trade, and then draft Nick Bosa, and you already got two 6-7 guys (DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead) who are really good players, you would expect the efficiency of the defense and the turnovers to go up and they obviously have.”
Spearheading that pass rush is the rookie Bosa, who happens to be going through the longest sack drought of his young career. He hasn’t registered one since Oct. 27 against the Carolina Panthers, four games ago, when he had three sacks of Kyle Allen and an interception to earn player of the week honors.
As Bosa’s star grows, so does his star
treatment from opposing offenses. Which means chip blocks from tight ends, receivers and running backs designed to slow his attack against offensive linemen. An example that stuck with Bosa from Sunday was when Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald blew Bosa up at the snap when he wasn’t expecting it.
“After that, he ran up to me and said, ‘Sorry man, I got to slow you down some how,’” Bosa said. “I was like, ‘Shoot, you did.’ “
It was one example of Bosa having an imprint on games despite not getting sacks in bunches like he did earlier in his rookie campaign. He had seven sacks in his first eight NFL contests, but hasn’t come particularly close the past three weeks in games against mobile signal callers Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson.
“Even though statistically it may not be showing up,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said, “teams have deliberately gone out of their way to try and take him out of the game and it’s given opportunities for other guys and that’s where other people have to step up. It’s a credit to him about what he’s been putting on tape and now for him he’s got to figure out how to defeat that because the great ones, it doesn’t matter what teams do, the great ones will still show up time and time again, which he has.”
Bosa on Thursday admitted to being frustrated by not getting sacks. But the extra attention he’s received the past three weeks has helped Buckner get two sacks, Armstead get 2.5 and Ford, 2.0.
“I’m getting better at focusing on the team and just the team winning and the other guys doing well,” Bosa said. “Arik, Buck, they’re having amazing years. It’s kind of a learning experience for me. And I’m just going to keep on going.”
Part of Bosa’s week of preparation has been talking with his brother Joey, the star pass rusher for the Chargers who had 1.5 sacks of Rodgers Nov. 3 during a 26-11 drubbing in Los Angeles.
“(I) texted him about his game and the amount of moves he used that game. He was winning with probably five different moves on both sides (of the formation). It was fun to watch,” Nick Bosa said.
If Joey, a four-year veteran, has five pass rushing moves, how many does Nick have?
“Right now, only like three-ish that I’m really, really confident in,” he said. “I was watching his stuff, he was using five or six and he was winning with all them. I definitely think over the next few seasons I could add a couple.”
San Francisco has 39 sacks, tied with the Panthers for the most in the NFL. A league-high 20 have come on third or fourth down, and the 49ers are the only club with four players with at least five sacks: Bosa (7.0), Armstead (8.0), Ford (6.5) and Buckner (5.0).
But getting sacks might not be enough to effectively slow Rodgers, who remains one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks despite turning 36 on Dec. 2.
Rodgers has thrown a league-low two interceptions, tied with Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. His interception rate (0.57% of dropbacks) is the best in the league, while his 8.6 intended yards per attempt ranks 10th. His 272 yards per game ranks 11th.
In other words, Rodgers is no check-down Charlie. He aggressively pushes the ball downfield while avoiding turnovers, which is an ideal combination for a quarterback. It’s one of the many reasons Rodgers is an all-time great.
“You’d have to check some physics expert or something because he makes some really tough throws,” cornerback Richard Sherman said.
49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead posted five total tackles and a sack during a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers early this season.