Not only are the one-win 49ers up for an award this week – you might want to sit down for this – it’s on defense.
No, the Rookie of the Week honor isn’t something that goes on the top shelf of the team trophy case, but when your defense ranks last in nearly every major category and your first-round draft choice is nominated, it’s at least a positive step.
That’s the case this week for lineman DeForest Buckner, who is coming off a two-sack, 11-tackle performance against the New York Jets that his coaches agree was his best game of the season.
“He’s making some big-time plays for us right now, and that’s what you want when you draft a guy (number) seven overall,” defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said. “He’s done a really nice job.”
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The 49ers have given up more yards and points than any other defense this year. They almost certainly will establish a franchise record for most rushing yards allowed in a season. In fact, if they give up their 170.8-yard average, they would set that mark Sunday against the Falcons.
If there’s one faint reason for optimism for next year, it’s that three rookie defenders – Buckner, cornerback Rashard Robinson and lineman Ronald Blair – have logged at least 250 defensive snaps this season.
Buckner has, by far, the most experience of the group.
His 821 snaps not only lead the 49ers’ defensive linemen, he’s played more than all but one NFL defensive lineman, New York Giants edge rusher Olivier Vernon, a five-year veteran. The 49ers’ defense played 84 snaps in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Jets, and Buckner was on the field for all of them – virtually unheard of for a 300-pound defender but commonplace for Buckner this season. The 84 snaps were the second most for the 49ers this season.
“It’s very rare for a guy that’s that big and the amount of energy it takes to defeat offensive linemen in the run game and pass game, and he’s able to be out there for 84 plays is rare and chase the ball the way he chases the ball,” O’Neil said. “If you look at his numbers compared to the other defensive linemen in the league, it’s pretty impressive with how many contacts he has to the ball.”
Buckner said one of his goals this season was to finish with 70 tackles. He has 65 with three games to play, which ranks fourth on the team and is 34 more than the 49ers’ next most prolific lineman, Quinton Dial. Buckner’s five sacks is tied for the team lead with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Buckner said one of the biggest steps he’s taken this year has come in the classroom, and that he’s much more comfortable analyzing plays now than he was at the beginning of the season.
“I’m not just looking at what my (opponent) is telling me, I’m looking at the whole formation, trying to diagnose everything,” he said.
Will he win Rookie of the Week? He’s up against Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, Browns defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, Falcons linebacker Deion Jones and Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. All but Jones’ Falcons lost their Week 14 game.
Voting is done through NFL.com, and the winner is revealed later in the week.