When the Dallas Cowboys ran for 265 yards and scored three rushing touchdowns at Levi’s Stadium in Week 7, it was a bucket of cold water across the face of the 49ers’ defense.
“A lot of us had a bad taste in our mouths from what we put on the field against Dallas,” defensive lineman Leger Douzable said.
“The Dallas game still punches me in the stomach, punches all of us really,” said defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
“We weren’t happy with that at all.” safety Eric Reid said. “So we made it our mission to not let that happen again.”
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They’ve succeeded so far.
San Francisco’s run defense has been respectable, and at times very good, in the six games since the Cowboys came to town. It’s allowed an average of 106 ground yards per contest and has given up just two rushing touchdowns. Only one running back, Arizona’s Adrian Peterson, has run for more than 100 yards in that six-game span, and he needed 37 carries to do so.
On Sunday the Tennessee Titans arrive with what every 49ers defender agreed is the best running attack they’ve faced since the Cowboys trampled them.
Inside linebacker Brock Coyle described it as a “three-headed monster” among running backs Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray and quarterback Marcus Mariota. The smallest of that group is Murray, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 220 pounds. Henry is listed at 6-3, 247 pounds.
“They’ve got an outside linebacker playing running back,” Reid said of Henry’s size. “We’ve got to get him on the ground. It’ll take multiple people to get him down.”
Said Coyle: “Their offensive line is very good at run blocking, their tight ends, too. We definitely understand that their offense starts with them.”
The Titans rank 10th in the league in rushing yards and have scored an AFC-best 17 touchdowns on the ground, five of them by Mariota.
“They have a large – probably the biggest – run-game playbook I’ve ever seen on tape,” Saleh said. “They come at you many different ways. This is going to be a great game with regards to locking in on your keys and trusting your fundamentals, being great with your eyes and understanding your responsibility.”
The 49ers not only had the worst run defense in the league last year, it was the most pathetic in franchise history. Their effort in the Cowboys game was reminiscent of their 2016 woes, but they recovered from that misstep for a number of reasons.
Inside linebacker Reuben Foster, injured in the first half of the season, will start his sixth straight game Sunday and is poised to become the team’s tackle leader despite missing half its games. Foster and the Titans’ Henry played together at Alabama.
The 49ers defensive line also has received reinforcements in recent weeks and is at its healthiest point since the start of the season. In fact, Saleh must sit as many as four healthy defensive linemen on Sunday because the numbers at the position are so high.
Finally, Saleh’s system usually calls for an extra defender – Reid – to line up close to the line of scrimmage, making it inherently more difficult to run against. Now that it’s mid-December, the 49ers simply have been playing the defense long enough that it’s become more second nature than it was early in the season.
“We’re definitely learning how to play fast in this defense, how to play disciplined and how to really play together,” said Coyle, who was in the same system with the Seattle Seahawks. “That’s one of the most important things. We’ve played with each other for a little while now and are starting to really trust each other.”