The three points the 49ers allowed to the Raiders in their Thursday night blowout last week were the fewest since shutting out the Rams way back in the 2016 season opener.
It was unquestionably the most encouraging defensive performance for San Francisco this season, albeit against a lifeless Oakland team dealing with a throng of injuries along the offensive line. But coordinator Robert Saleh’s 14th-ranked unit is trying to take every positive it can down the home stretch of the schedule, continuing Monday night against the 1-7 New York Giants.
Like the Raiders, New York struggles to protect the passer (quarterback Eli Manning has been sacked 31 times, tied with the 49ers for the third-most in the NFL).
Bothering the quarterback is an area of Saleh’s defense that’s been under the microscope throughout the season. And after getting credited with eight sacks last week, the 49ers’ 24 sacks are tied with three other teams for the fifth most in the NFL.
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“The way they were collapsing the pocket was kind of a great picture of what we’ve been wanting our pass rush to look like with two guys collapsing the pocket and two guys pushing the pocket,” Saleh said.
DeForest Buckner was his usual disruptive self, providing pressure from the inside like he’s done throughout his three seasons. But the key difference on Thursday was the added pressure outside, which gave San Francisco a glimpse at what a well-rounded pass rush can look like.
Defensive ends Cassius Marsh and Dekoda Watson combined for four sacks, which would have set the team’s new season high. But Buckner and Ronald Blair III also contributed sacks. Solomon Thomas was credited with a sack in the first half only because he was the closest defender to Raiders signal caller Derek Carr when he scrambled out of bounds for a 2-yard loss.
“Talking to all the guys, we’re definitely not satisfied,” Buckner said. “We’re definitely happy with the performance last Thursday, but it’s over. Nobody cares about it. The time passed and now we’re looking at the Giants and what we’re going to do next.”
Cornerback Richard Sherman has long said the key to improving San Francisco’s 17th-ranked passing defense was tying the pass rush together with solid coverage in the secondary. That cohesion had been lacking for much of the season, but the 49ers were finally able to combine both facets and hold Oakland to just 242 yards of total offense, the fewest since allowing 220 to the Cardinals in Oct. 7 loss.
“It’s just guys just doing their job, seeing that the scheme works,” Sherman said. “Within the scheme, (when) you get pressure, obviously Dekoda getting back made a difference, but there was eight sacks and guys just doing what they’re supposed to do. This defense is really effective.”
Watson’s re-insertion could prove valuable over the remaining seven games. He made 2018 his debut against Oakland after he suffered a hamstring injury the Friday before the season opener in Minnesota and landed on injured reserve. Watson had previously made his mark as a core member of special teams, but this season the coaching staff changed his role to defensive end in throwing situations.
“We just felt like he’d provide some juice off the edge,” Saleh said. “His speed, power. He can run the hoop and capture edges, and he’s able to transition to power. He’s a very strong player, especially for his size. So, we just felt like if he could just focus on that all offseason, he could get better and he has.”
Watson is one of the team’s most athletic defensive linemen, and physical tools against the Raiders offered a promising development for a team devoid of reliable pass rushers off the edge in recent seasons.
“He was just walking guys back to the quarterback,” Buckner said. “And (he) also helps Cassius on the other end. Having more guys being able to do more things helps free up other guys on the line. Seeing them eat last Thursday definitely made me happy. Teams are going to see that they can’t keep doubling one person on the D-line and they got to look out for other guys.”
49ers focusing on Foster’s health, for now – Linebacker Reuben Foster missed the Raiders game because of his hamstring injury, while he’s also dealt with shoulder issues throughout his two seasons. He hasn’t practiced this week and appears unlikely to play Monday.
San Francisco has its bye week after the Giants, which could allow Foster three weeks of rest and rehabilitation before the stretch run, starting with the game Nov. 25 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“Reuben’s got to get healthy. That’s first and foremost,” Saleh said. “When he’s healthy, he’s a fantastic football player. And so for Reuben, all of his energy and focus right now, with regards to his body, is with Ray (Wright) and (head athletic trainer Jeff Ferguson).”
Veteran Malcolm Smith and second-year pro Elijah Lee rotated at Foster’s “Will” linebacker spot against the Raiders, which could continue against the Giants if Foster doesn’t play.
Celek excused from practice – 49ers tight end Garrett Celek didn’t practice Friday due to undisclosed personal reasons. Receiver Pierre Garçon (knee) and safety Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder) missed practice for the second straight day.
Tight end George Kittle practiced again in a blue, non-contact jersey after suffering a chest contusion against the Raiders, but appears on track to play against New York. Weston Richburg (knee) was also a limited participant for the second time this week. Guard Joshua Garnett was listed on Friday’s injury report with a thumb injury, but was a full participant.