Who says the 49ers made no big-name additions to their pass rush in the offseason?
One of the new faces at team headquarters belongs to Chris Kiffin, whose surname is closely connected to the fast and aggressive type of defense the 49ers run. San Francisco hired Kiffin, 36, in February, gave him the title of pass-rush specialist and told him to boost a lackluster unit that finished tied for 26th in the NFL in sack total last year.
It's a big ask considering the 49ers didn't do much else. In fact, they said goodbye to their top pass rusher from 2017, Elvis Dumervil. The 11-year veteran — the 49ers say they haven't entirely ruled out bringing him back at some point — has 105 1/2 career sacks and ranks third among active players in that category. None of the others competing at pass rusher, a group that includes Solomon Thomas, Cassius Marsh, Eli Harold and newcomer Jeremiah Attaochu, has more than 10 career sacks.
Kiffin, however, has seen similar casts torment quarterbacks in the past, and he believes this one can, too.
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"A big thing I saw was guys not necessarily rushing together," he said of last year's squad. "You can't look at it as four individual rushers. It's really, you're rushing as one. If we can get that fixed, the pass rush improves."
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll is considered the architect of the defense the 49ers, Seahawks and three other NFL teams run. Carroll says the scheme has its origin at the University of Arkansas in 1977 when he was a graduate assistant and Monte Kiffin, Chris' father, was the defensive coordinator. The two were tied together from that point forth, with Monte Kiffin serving as Carroll's linebackers coach with the New York Jets in 1990 when Carroll ran that team's defense.
"There were countless times I'd be home in the summertime or whenever it was and the phone would ring and it would be Pete," Chris recalled. "And they'd talk for hours. Their friendship has allowed them to really grow with that defense."
Chris has plenty of familiarity with the 49ers' staff.
When he was a freshman in high school, Monte landed a job as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive coordinator. It was then that Chris first met the Buccaneers' young safety, John Lynch.
Eight years later, Kyle Shanahan got his first NFL job as an offensive quality control coach. Though he worked mainly with the offense, he also would sit in on the defensive meetings led by Monte Kiffin and fell in love with his style of defense.
Chris' biggest NFL connection is with Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who toiled alongside Chris when they were entry-level coaches in Tampa Bay in 2007. Kiffin since has spent time as an assistant at USC, Arkansas State, Mississippi and, most recently, Florida Atlantic where his brother, Lane, is the head coach.
He wanted to break into the NFL this year, so Bradley made a call to 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, with whom he worked closely in Seattle and Jacksonville. The 49ers liked the way Kiffin fit in the defensive-line room alongside Jeff Zgonina, a former defensive tackle whose specialty is stopping the run.
"I wanted to get someone else in that could help (Zgonina) and also bring another taste to the pass game," Shanahan said. "We interviewed a number of guys, a bunch of guys. I think seven guys. Chris was our last guy and he was the most impressive, just from a teaching standpoint, the places he’s been, the people he’s worked with, the different types of schemes he’s done, and he was very good on the board. He’s been very good here with the players so far.”
Kiffin works with all of the defensive linemen as well as the strong-side linebackers, teaching them everything from footwork to how to use their hands to get to the quarterback.
The biggest lesson is rushing as a unit and, in his words, "building a trap" for the quarterback. The jaws of that trap, he said, will be the team's most talented defensive lineman, DeForest Buckner.
Last year, Buckner led the NFL with 19 quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus. His three sacks, however, tied for 114th best and were three fewer than he had as a rookie the year prior. The trick this year is to turn Buckner's near misses into sacks, which Kiffin thinks the 49ers can do by funneling quarterbacks toward Buckner and knowing which way they'll go should Buckner burst through the middle of the offensive line.
"I think we have to build everything around Buck," Kiffin said, "And that's your starting point. You watch the NBA playoffs right now and you see (teams) build around their best guys."
Kiffin notes that the 49ers made a significant upgrade to their secondary by adding cornerback Richard Sherman, and he said quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo also ought to help the 49ers' sack total because they will be playing with a lead more often than they did last year.
He also insists defenses can excel against the pass even if they don't have marquee edge players. Monte Kiffin's Buccaneers defenses, for example, never had a big-name defensive end until they added Simeon Rice in 2001.
But they had excellent interior players in Warren Sapp and Booger McFarland. Tampa Bay ranked second-to-last in Sapp's first season in 1995 with 25 sacks. Five years later, that number jumped to 55 — which tied for second best — and two years after that, Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl.
"There are a bunch of different ways you can do it," Kiffin said. "But you take your best and you build off of him. And that's what we plan on doing."