The 49ers have gone back to basics ahead of Sunday’s game against the NFL’s most explosive team.
They’ve renewed their focus on tackling, knowing they’ll have little chance of slowing Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his bevy of playmakers if they don’t improve at bringing down ballcarriers. Kansas City is averaging 40 points per game behind its promising young signal caller, who’s taking advantage of expert play calling from coach Andy Reid.
“Over these last four years or so, they’ve really added an element of the misdirection,” Kyle Shanahan said of Kansas City’s offense. “It’s been an issue, not just because of the plays, but the people with the plays. They have the speed at every angle to run those things and really put defenses in a bind.”
Through two games, San Francisco’s defenders have missed 26 tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The scouting service ranks the 49ers 27th in the NFL in tackling ahead of their toughest challenge to date.
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Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said he’s emphasized taking the right angles to get in proper position. So far, the 49ers have struggled with their angles, which has led to whiffs in the open field and big gains for opposing offenses.
“Tracking, that’s our term for it, is by far the number one aspect of tackling. If you do not take good tracking angles, you cannot be violent when you arrive,” Saleh said. “Then, from there at contact it’s wrap, squeeze and drive your legs for five. There’s stuff that is showing up on tape that we’re going to continue to work through with drills. ... But it’s got to get better.”
Reid is widely regarded as one of the most inventive play callers in the NFL. And his Chiefs boast arguably the NFL’s most talented offense, highlighted by Mahomes and lightning quick receiver Tyreek Hill, who moonlights as a running back when he’s not sprinting downfield to catch deep passes.
“Andy will give you every single run in football in one game,” cornerback Richard Sherman said this week. “It’s power, zone, counter, trap, draw, option. Like nobody else in this league runs option, and Andy will pull out option at the craziest possible time.”
San Francisco’s linebackers, in particular, have been victimized in the early going. Reserve Brock Coyle was forced into action in the season opener against Minnesota and missed four tackles. He left the game in the fourth quarter with a concussion and C4 vertebra compression fracture. His backup, Elijah Lee, missed a crucial tackle Week 2 on a third-down conversion just before a Lions touchdown.
Tackling, generally, is down in the NFL to start the season because teams rarely practice it in live settings during training camp. And starters rarely play with the same tenacity during their limited playing time in the preseason.
“We can’t make an excuse that it’s early in the season because everyone else early in the season has to tackle,” rookie linebacker Fred Warner said. “Just making it a priority and making sure we’re mindful of it. When we have the opportunity (with) pads on in practice, we’re wrapping guys up and thudding around.”
Said Saleh: “When you don’t have pads, the only thing you can do is work on your tracking angles. There is no leeway on that one.”
In the 24-16 loss Week 1 to the Vikings, the 49ers allowed 81 yards after contact on rushing plays, according to Pro Football Focus. And running back Dalvin Cook broke five tackles during his six receptions. In Week 2, Lions pass catchers broke seven tackles after making catches, helping Matthew Stafford throw for 347 yards.
“There’s no excuse and there’s no exception. We’ve got to be better, and be better at tackling,” Saleh said.
The 49ers are getting one of their best tacklers back this week in linebacker Reuben Foster, who finished second on the team with 72 tackles last season despite playing in just 10 games. He rejoined this week following his two-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies.
Foster’s ability to track ball carriers and take correct angles was one of the draws to trading back into the first round of the NFL draft in 2017 to take him.
“I think he’s one of the best, if not the best,” Warner said. “That’s why I feel like when he has those blowup shots in games, it’s from his tracking angle. And maybe it’s something he was taught at Alabama or something that’s kind of natural. I don’t know. But he’s pretty good at it.”