De­fense look­ing to ride mo­men­tum against Gi­ants

The Sacramento Bee - - Sports - BY CHRIS BI­DER­MAN cbi­der­man@sacbee.com

The three points the 49ers al­lowed to the Raiders in their Thurs­day night blowout last week were the fewest since shut­ting out the Rams way back in the 2016 sea­son opener.

It was un­ques­tion­ably the most en­cour­ag­ing de­fen­sive per­for­mance for San Fran­cisco this sea­son, al­beit against a life­less Oak­land team deal­ing with a throng of in­juries along the of­fen­sive line. But co­or­di­na­tor Robert Saleh’s 14th-ranked unit is try­ing to take ev­ery pos­i­tive it can down the home stretch of the sched­ule, con­tin­u­ing Mon­day night against the 1-7 New York Gi­ants.

Like the Raiders, New York strug­gles to pro­tect the passer (quar­ter­back Eli Man­ning has been sacked 31 times, tied with the 49ers for the third­most in the NFL).

Both­er­ing the quar­ter­back is an area of Saleh’s de­fense that’s been un­der the mi­cro­scope through­out the sea­son. And af­ter get­ting cred­ited with eight sacks last week, the 49ers’ 24 sacks are tied with three other teams for the fifth most in the NFL.

“The way they were col­laps­ing the pocket was kind of a great pic­ture of what we’ve been want­ing our pass rush to look like with two guys col­laps­ing the pocket and two guys push­ing the pocket,” Saleh said.

DeFor­est Buck­ner was his usual dis­rup­tive self, pro­vid­ing pres­sure from the in­side like he’s done through­out his three sea­sons. But the key dif­fer­ence on Thurs­day was the added pres­sure out­side, which gave San Fran­cisco a glimpse at what a well­rounded pass rush can look like.

De­fen­sive ends Cas­sius Marsh and Dekoda Wat­son com­bined for four sacks, which would have set the team’s new sea­son high. But Buck­ner and Ronald Blair III also con­tributed sacks. Solomon Thomas was cred­ited with a sack in the first half only be­cause he was the clos­est de­fender to Raiders sig­nal caller Derek Carr when he scram­bled out of bounds for a 2-yard loss.

“Talk­ing to all the guys, we’re def­i­nitely not sat­is­fied,” Buck­ner said. “We’re def­i­nitely happy with the per­for­mance last Thurs­day, but it’s over. No­body cares about it. The time passed and now we’re look­ing at the Gi­ants and what we’re go­ing to do next.”

Cor­ner­back Richard Sherman has long said the key to im­prov­ing San Fran­cisco’s 17th-ranked pass­ing de­fense was ty­ing the pass rush to­gether with solid cov­er­age in the sec­ondary. That co­he­sion had been lack­ing for much of the sea­son, but the 49ers were fi­nally able to com­bine both facets and hold Oak­land to just 242 yards of to­tal of­fense, the fewest since al­low­ing 220 to the Car­di­nals in Oct. 7 loss.

“It’s just guys just do­ing their job, see­ing that the scheme works,” Sherman said. “Within the scheme, (when) you get pres­sure, ob­vi­ously Dekoda get­ting back made a dif­fer­ence, but there was eight sacks and guys just do­ing what they’re sup­posed to do. This de­fense is re­ally ef­fec­tive.”

Wat­son’s re-in­ser­tion could prove valu­able over the re­main­ing seven games. He made 2018 his de­but against Oak­land af­ter he suf­fered a ham­string in­jury the Fri­day be­fore the sea­son opener in Min­nesota and landed on in­jured re­serve. Wat­son had pre­vi­ously made his mark as a core mem­ber of spe­cial teams, but this sea­son the coach­ing staff changed his role to de­fen­sive end in throw­ing sit­u­a­tions.

“We just felt like he’d pro­vide some juice off the edge,” Saleh said. “His speed, power. He can run the hoop and cap­ture edges, and he’s able to tran­si­tion to power. He’s a very strong player, es­pe­cially for his size. So, we just felt like if he could just fo­cus on that all off­sea­son, he could get bet­ter and he has.”

Wat­son is one of the team’s most ath­letic de­fen­sive line­men, and phys­i­cal tools against the Raiders of­fered a promis­ing de­vel­op­ment for a team de­void of re­li­able pass rush­ers off the edge in re­cent sea­sons.

“He was just walk­ing guys back to the quar­ter­back,” Buck­ner said. “And (he) also helps Cas­sius on the other end. Hav­ing more guys be­ing able to do more things helps free up other guys on the line. See­ing them eat last Thurs­day def­i­nitely made me happy. Teams are go­ing to see that they can’t keep dou­bling one per­son on the D-line and they got to look out for other guys.”

49ers fo­cus­ing on Fos­ter’s health, for now – Linebacker Reuben Fos­ter missed the Raiders game be­cause of his ham­string in­jury, while he’s also dealt with shoul­der is­sues through­out his two sea­sons. He hasn’t prac­ticed this week and ap­pears un­likely to play Mon­day.

San Fran­cisco has its bye week af­ter the Gi­ants, which could al­low Fos­ter three weeks of rest and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion be­fore the stretch run, start­ing with the game Nov. 25 against the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers.

“Reuben’s got to get healthy. That’s first and fore­most,” Saleh said. “When he’s healthy, he’s a fan­tas­tic foot­ball player. And so for Reuben, all of his en­ergy and fo­cus right now, with re­gards to his body, is with Ray (Wright) and (head ath­letic trainer Jeff Fer­gu­son).”

Vet­eran Mal­colm Smith and sec­ond-year pro Eli­jah Lee ro­tated at Fos­ter’s “Will” linebacker spot against the Raiders, which could con­tinue against the Gi­ants if Fos­ter doesn’t play.

Celek ex­cused from prac­tice – 49ers tight end Gar­rett Celek didn’t prac­tice Fri­day due to undis­closed per­sonal rea­sons. Re­ceiver Pierre Garçon (knee) and safety Jaquiski Tartt (shoul­der) missed prac­tice for the sec­ond straight day.

Tight end Ge­orge Kit­tle prac­ticed again in a blue, non-con­tact jersey af­ter suf­fer­ing a chest con­tu­sion against the Raiders, but ap­pears on track to play against New York. We­ston Rich­burg (knee) was also a lim­ited par­tic­i­pant for the sec­ond time this week. Guard Joshua Gar­nett was listed on Fri­day’s in­jury re­port with a thumb in­jury, but was a full par­tic­i­pant.

PAUL KITAGAKI JR. pkita­gaki@sacbee.com

49ers de­fen­sive tackle DeFor­est Buck­ner (99) sacks Raiders quar­ter­back Derek Carr (4).

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