Coach Kyle Shanahan’s vision of the 49ers’ defense has been constructed around what’s given him the most problems during nine seasons as an offensive coordinator before being hired by San Francisco in 2017.
He thought the Seahawks’ scheme put together by coach Pete Carroll made it tough to consistently string together scoring drives. So he hired Carroll’s former assistant, Robert Saleh, to become coordinator. Richard Sherman was one of the toughest cornerbacks Shanahan’s offenses faced, so it was natural to add Sherman given his Hall-of-Fame resume in Carroll’s system when he became available last spring.
An interesting question, then, involves the pass rush, which has been an emphasis for Shanahan and general manager John Lynch since the new league year began this month. San Francisco set an NFL record in 2018 for the fewest takeaways (seven) and interceptions (two), in part because the 49ers struggled to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.
So on March 12, they traded for star edge rusher Dee Ford, who logged 13 sacks for the Chiefs and led the league with seven forced fumbles last season. The 49ers sent a 2020 second-round draft pick to Kansas City and inked Ford to a five-year, $87.5 million contract, making him the team’s highest-paid defensive player.
“Dee’s known for having, I think, the best first step in football coming off the edge,” Lynch said this week at the owners meetings.
It was a sentiment Shanahan reiterated at the annual coaches breakfast Tuesday, noting he looks forward to matching Ford with budding defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who set a career high with 12 sacks last season and went to his first Pro Bowl. Shanahan thinks that duo could resemble another from recent memory.
“You had Aldon Smith and Justin Smith; those guys went very well together,” Shanahan said. “I don’t know which one was more important to the other. They both played off each other well. When you have a guy like DeFo playing the 3-technique and you got a guy outside of him that probably has the best first step in the league of just getting off the ball, that makes the tackle have to expand a lot more, which gives more space for Buck, and the more space you can give Buck, the better he’s going to do.”
Shanahan was asked which pass rushers gave him the most problems as a play caller. His answer was a player Ford might emulate with a similar skill set: Dwight Freeney, who had 4.5 sacks in three games with the Colts against Shanahan as offensive coordinator for the Texans in 2008 and 2009.
Freeney, whose 125.5 sacks rank 18th all time, was considered the ideal “Wide-9” pass rusher off the edge over 16 seasons thanks to his speed and explosiveness, which is similar for Ford’s. The 49ers plan to utilize Wide-9 concepts more often under new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.
“We always played (Freeney) in Indy, and we couldn’t hear (because of crowd noise),” Shanahan said, “and usually with Peyton (Manning), they were already up 21-3 after three possessions and (Freeney) was teeing off on the quarterback with more speed than anyone. And if you didn’t try to set for that, he’d run right by you. And when you did, he’d spin right off you.
“That’s all he needed to do, and it was extremely hard, especially with (Robert) Mathis on the other side.”
Mathis is just behind Freeney with 123 sacks, ranking 19th all time. And Shanahan bringing him up might be another bread crumb toward his thinking with the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft. The 49ers are widely believed to be interested in another edge rusher, such as Ohio State’s Nick Bosa or Kentucky’s Josh Allen, to provide what Mathis gave Freeney.
“And what’s harder than two (pass rushers) would be four elite ones,” Shanahan said. “ So if they can keep coming, it puts pressure on the whole offense.”
Ford was successful last year, in part, because he played alongside talented players. Justin Houston (nine sacks in 12 games) normally lined up as the edge rusher on the other side while defensive tackle Chris Jones (15.5 sacks) was one of the best interior pass rushers in football.
The 49ers invested first-round selections in defensive linemen three years in a row (2015-17): Arik Armstead, Buckner and Solomon Thomas. Adding another first-round talent would be doubling down on the team’s biggest strength, but it doesn’t sound like San Francisco’s brain trust believes that’s a problem.
“You can never have too many D-linemen,” Shanahan said. “... I feel like watching Seattle through their Super Bowl runs — I felt like they’re really good on the D-line and they kept adding D-linemen every year. You watch Philly and it seems like they have a lot of good D-linemen and then they add more D-linemen. Everyone needs D-linemen. They are very hard to find. And when you get guys who are difference makers, those guys can change the game as much as anyone just on their own but rushing the passer.”
Suffice to say, the buzz about the 49ers addressing the defensive line again in the draft April 25 isn’t dying down.
▪ Lynch and top personnel executive Adam Peters on Wednesday attended Arizona State’s Pro Day, a short drive from the owners meetings at the swanky Biltmore hotel. The Sun Devils’ top prospect is receiver N’Keal Harry, a fringe first-rounder who could be in play for San Francisco near the top of Round 2 with pick No. 36.
On adding another receiver, Shanahan said Tuesday, “I definitely think we need to.”
▪ The 49ers are planning joint practices with the Denver Broncos in August, a source confirmed to The Bee on Wednesday.
The sides are waiting for the league to approve the preseason schedule before formally making plans. The teams have regularly held joint sessions in recent seasons. Lynch is close with Denver’s top football executive, John Elway, who just hired San Francisco’s former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to become head coach. Fangio tapped the 49ers’ former quarterbacks coach, Rich Scangarello, to be his offensive coordinator.
▪ Add Mississippi State pass rusher Montez Sweat to the list of prospects expected in Santa Clara for one of the 49ers’ 30 pre-draft visits, according to NFL Media’s Tom Pelissero. Sweat logged 22.5 sacks the past two seasons and impressed at the scouting combine by running a blazing 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash at nearly 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds.
Sweat would most likely be a candidate if the 49ers traded down from the No. 2 pick. Lynch confirmed Monday the 49ers will host Bosa, Allen, Quinnen Williams (Alabama) and Rashan Gary (Michigan) when the meetings begin in April.