It took an identity shift for the 49ers to escape Tampa Bay with their victory in Week 1.
Kyle Shanahan’s team ran the ball just 42 percent of the time last season; last Sunday, the 49ers rushed on 53 percent of the snaps against the Buccaneers despite losing starting running back Tevin Coleman at halftime to a high ankle sprain. San Francisco had more running plays than pass attempts just twice in 2018.
The team on Sunday played more to its defense, which appears to be the proper approach until Jimmy Garoppolo is back to pre-injury form following last year’s ACL tear.
One of Garoppolo’s goals this week for heading into Cincinnati was telling.
“Complementing the defense,” he said after a practice at Youngstown State. “When they make a big play, how do we answer that up once we get the ball.”
The big plays, of course, were hard to come by last season, when San Francisco managed just seven defensive takeaways and two interceptions, which were both the worst marks in NFL history. The 49ers had four takeaways in the season opener alone, and beat their 2018 interception total by the end of the first game with cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon’s pick-six, the team’s third of the day.
“I believe you become what you talk about,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said this week. “If you’re constantly talking about how you can’t get takeaways, then you’re probably not going to get takeaways, just speaking it out there.
“For them to go out there and see they can get the ball, the pressure that was put on the quarterback, the rush and coverage is a very real thing and it doesn’t get seen by the naked eye, but the faster the rush goes, the faster the coverage gets in terms of their drops and getting stickier.”
The 49ers spent the offseason harping on tying the coverage together with the pass rush. And instead of making big investments into improving one of the league’s least-productive secondaries, Shanahan and John Lynch made sizable additions to the edges of the defensive line by bringing in Dee Ford in a trade with the Chiefs and parlaying last year’s failures into arguably the best defensive prospect in the draft, Ohio State’s defensive end Nick Bosa, who is questionable to play Sunday while dealing with lingering pain from a sprained right ankle.
The early returns are promising. San Francisco allowed just 295 yards to Tampa Bay and led the league in takeaways Week 1. Jameis Winston’s 45.4 passer rating was the lowest of any quarterback.
The pressure brought by Ford (who had a sack and forced fumble) and Bosa (who logged his first career sack and three quarterback hits) was felt by San Francisco’s secondary, who allowed a 116.6 passer rating to Winston in a 27-9 blowout loss on the same field last last November.
“You could definitely feel the clock speeding up for Jameis,” Sherman said. “Even early on in the game. And even during the times when he wasn’t sped up, you could see his mechanics were off. He wasn’t as comfortable, he wasn’t just stepping into his throws as confidently as he was last year.
“There were plays where he scrambled around and created more time and made big plays, those plays became sacks this year, quarterback hits. And that’s what you appreciate. You appreciate the investment the front office made in our front and they made a huge difference.”
San Francisco’s defense allowed just 10 points Sunday (Tampa Bay’s other seven came from Garoppolo’s second-quarter pick-six) while Winston completed 20 of 36 for 194 yards. Star receiver Mike Evans had just two catches for 28 yards.
According to ESPN, the 49ers’ 40.5-percent pressure rate was the fifth-best of any defense Week 1, which helped San Francisco generate its three picks and the other two dropped by linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Tarvarius Moore.
“There’s a lot of examples,” Saleh said of the pressure helping coverage. “I’ll give you one where we had a bust in coverage, where a year ago it was a touchdown and Dee Ford gets a pressure that Bosa gets a sack on where the rush saved the coverage. The first third down, the coverage saved the rush. So they’re hand-in-hand.”
The improved play along the defensive line could also impact how opponents game plan for San Francisco. Offenses last season used a slew of long-developing plays aimed at big yardage. Of course, the longer a play lasts, the more difficult for the secondary to keep pass-catchers from springing open.
“We will know that we’re applying pressure when offenses change the way they call games against us,” Saleh said. “A year ago, a lot of deeper-developing concepts, a lot of seven-step drops with five-man protection, a lot of exotic things that expose holes in our zone that take time to develop.
“... When they’ve got to get the ball on time and in rhythm, they can count on those two hitches from the quarterback. Then you’ve been able to accomplish what you want from the pass rush standpoint.”
Added Witherspoon: “Watching the tape, I think it’s kind of exciting, like when we can get that going early, how fast can we get that pressure on them, how fast can the DBs get their feet in the ground and break on footballs.”
But the key to becoming a good defense is consistency. The 49ers entered the new season 10-22 with Saleh as defensive coordinator, ranking 25th and 28th in opponents scoring in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
“We got to be hard on ourselves and we got to be critical,” Sherman said. “We can’t be complacent. We feel good for it being a first game and just knocking rust off. But, obviously, there’s things we can correct and play at a higher level.”
Week 2 against the Bengals offers a tougher test than many expected when the schedule was released. Cincinnati is coming off a 21-20 loss on the road to the Seahawks in which quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 418 yards and speedy receiver John Ross had the best game of his career with 158 yards and two touchdowns.
But Dalton has a history of struggling against pressure from opponents, which means Sunday’s game could come to how well the 49ers are adjusting to their newfound identity.