The 49ers entered Sunday’s game having used a seemingly endless combination of players in the secondary this season.
They played the Denver Broncos without starting strong safety Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder injury), starting nickel corner K’Waun Williams (knee) and free safety Antone Exum Jr., essentially a fourth-stringer. They’re two weeks removed from the release of former first-round draft pick Reuben Foster.
The 49ers held the Broncos to 14 points, their second-fewest allowed this season, behind strong performances by rookies and second-year players in what could be the defense’s most encouraging performance to date. It was crucial in the 20-14 victory, moving San Francisco to 3-10.
“I thought they played hard and with passion,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “... I just really wanted them to have fun playing football, and the only way you have fun is if you play with some passion and you play together. When I’m looking up and just the energy you feel, I thought our guys really enjoyed the day.”
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The 49ers’ two leaders in tackles were rookies taken on the third day of the draft. Defensive back D.J. Reed, a fifth-round cornerback from Kansas State, flew all over the field with 12 combined tackles, including a sack, forced fumble and three tackles for loss. He replaced Williams in the slot after playing predominately at free safety this season.
Strong safety Marcell Harris, a sixth-round pick who didn’t play in 2017 because of an Achilles’ tear at Florida, had seven tackles, including two for loss, in his second NFL start.
“I’ve just been waiting on my opportunity,” Reed said. “... Getting a chance to play nickel this week was fun.”
Reed has endeared himself to the 49ers because of his toughness, making him a fit near the box as a slot corner who can blitz and stop the run.
He played predominately cornerback in college but hasn’t been given the chance there in the NFL. Moving to the slot as the nickel corner allowed him to play more naturally, unlike free safety, where he played behind Adrian Colbert and Jimmie Ward, who are on injured reserve.
“At nickel, it’s just like corner in a way,” Reed said. “I’m guarding people so I know what to do. I’m shooting fast, I’m playing faster. So that’s why I’m playing better at nickel.”
Harris, starting for Tartt, made back-to-back crucial plays in the fourth quarter. He stopped Denver running back Phillip Lindsay for a loss on third and short, then tackled Lindsay in a one-on-one situation in the flat a play later, forcing a turnover as the Broncos tried to make it a one-score game.
“They played fearless,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. “They played with no hesitation, they didn’t second-guess themselves. They didn’t think about anything. ... They made some phenomenal one-on-one tackles in crucial spots in the ball game.”
49ers play with heavy hearts - Tony York, the brother of 49ers CEO Jed York, died Friday, and Sunday’s game was played with the flags at half-staff at Levi’s Stadium. York was 35.
“This game was definitely for him,” Shanahan said. “Getting to know the Yorks the last two years, the one thing that was so apparent to me about Tony, the times I’ve been around him, he was the biggest Niners fan out of any of them and really out of anyone I’ve been around since I’ve been in San Fran. Yeah, he is an owner, but just the true fan he was for the Niners always was so fun to watch. That’s what was so cool about him. For us to have a win today with what happened to him yesterday, it means a ton. I know it means a lot to the York family. He was a special person who will be missed a lot.”
Shanahan said Jed York spoke to the team about the loss of his brother, who was an entrepreneur and philanthropist. He founded Koda, a company dedicated to preparing young people for their first jobs after graduating college.
He didn’t have an official role with the team but was active in the club’s community relations department. The reason for his death has not been specified.
“Obviously, there was a huge loss to the organization and the York family when Tony passed away,” Sherman said. “Obviously, there was a lot of enthusiasm in trying to get this game for him and for the family, for Dr. York, Denise and Jed.”
Pettis’ confidence growing - Tight end George Kittle’s 210-yard performance overshadowed another promising development for the 49ers over the last few weeks: the late-season emergence of receiver Dante Pettis.
Pettis scored a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter, giving him four touchdowns in three weeks. He had three catches for 49 yards, including one of the most important grabs of the game, a 31-yard catch and run to convert a third and 7 with 3:39 remaining to help seal the win.
Nick Mullens’ throw appeared headed to a Broncos defender in traffic, but the pass floated to a wide-open Pettis, who turned up field.
The play almost didn’t happen because Shanahan was trying to call a timeout. But the officials ignored his request.
“Fortunately, the ref didn’t hear me, which I started to get very worked up about,” Shanahan said. “But then, it was a helluva job of him not hearing me. I was very happy and it worked out well.”