San Francisco 49ers

Numbers game: Signs of improvement for besieged 49ers defense

49ers defenders Eric Reid, DeForest Buckner and Ahkello Witherspoon celebrate a missed field goal against the New York Giants.
49ers defenders Eric Reid, DeForest Buckner and Ahkello Witherspoon celebrate a missed field goal against the New York Giants. The Bee

DeForest Buckner remains the NFL’s leader in snaps by a defensive lineman, but there are reasons to believe he won’t be in the top spot by the end of the season.

The most obvious is that he and the 49ers have played one more game than most teams. Buckner, for example, has logged 597 snaps. The second-place player in that category, the New York Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul, has 579 but already has had his bye week.

More important, Buckner is playing 80.9 percent of his team’s snaps through 10 games. That’s high, but not as steep as his 87.2 percent rate a year ago and not as high as it was through the first few games this year. He ended last season with 1,005 defensive snaps and missed a full game with a sprained ankle. He’s on pace to have 955 this year.

Finally, the 49ers are in line to get some key reserves back after the bye, including Tank Carradine, Solomon Thomas and Aaron Lynch. None play Buckner’s base-down position per se, but their return should have a domino effect that results in more rotation and fewer individual snaps for everyone.

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The 49ers defense has improved in just about every category from their abysmally bad 2016 season.

One exception is third-down defense. They are allowing opponents to convert 45.5 percent of their attempts; last year that rate was slightly lower, 45.1 percent.

Couple that with the fact that San Francisco’s offense has had trouble staying on the field – it ranks first in pass attempts, first in incompletions and third in punts – and you see why Buckner and the 49ers’ defensive players have been on the field more than any other team’s defenders.

At their current rate, the 49ers will finish the season with 1,181 defensive snaps. Last year that number was 1,153.

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Where does the strength of the defense lie? It’s obviously through the middle with Buckner and Thomas a long-term duo on the defensive line, Reuben Foster and Malcolm Smith penciled in as the inside linebacker tandem of the future and Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward and Adrian Colbert all playing well at safety this season. (Eric Reid has, too, but he’s not signed for next year).

That also helps explain the 49ers’ poor third-down rate. They are getting a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but not a lot of sacks off the edge.

If the 49ers make big additions to the defense in the offseason it will be to the periphery positions – edge pass rusher, outside linebacker or cornerback (Ahkello Witherspoon shows great promise at cornerback but fellow starter Dontae Johnson is not signed beyond this season). Two players likely to be in the draft conversation are N.C. State pass rusher Bradley Chubb and Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick.

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When it was suggested last week that the 49ers run defense had struggled recently, coordinator Robert Saleh took exception.

“We are only giving up 3.9 (yards) a carry, and any time you can give up less than four yards a carry in the run game is pretty good,” he said. “When you get 35 carries thrown on you, I’d like to think I could run for a hundred (yards). You’re going to have a lot of yards run on you. From an efficiency standpoint, when we look at it from efficiency in the run game, we feel like we’ve been much improved.”

Saleh is right. Opponents have run the ball against the 49ers 337 times this season, by far the highest number any defense has had to endure even when the 49ers extra game is accounted for. For example, that’s 66 more attempts than the second-place team in that category, The New York Jets.

San Francisco is giving up 3.96 yards per attempt, which actually puts them in the top half of the league – 13th overall – in that category. Last year the 49ers gave up 4.8 yards per carry, the worst in the NFL.

Still, the 49ers rank 31st overall in rushing defense. As is the case with its inflated snap counts, the team’s lousy third-down rate on offense and defense are the main culprits.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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