Because it’s May, unanswered questions naturally surround the 49ers defense. But one thing seems sure: the pass rush should be the best it’s been in years.
The lack of a formidable pass rush has hampered the 49ers for years. Revamping the defensive front-seven and getting pressure off the edge would deliver more sacks while relieving pressure off the secondary.
Following Wednesday’s OTA, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh talked about finally having that pass rush, anchored by a key defensive end in second-overall pick Nick Bosa:
“Our front has a chance to be special, they know it. … With great expectations, usually people rise to those expectations. It’s like telling an offense to get by without a good quarterback. Our front is everything, it starts with the front, it’s a big man’s game. Big men usually win, talented big men anyway.”
Last week, Bosa suffered a minor hamstring injury and will be sidelined for a couple of weeks. Saleh said he’s not worried about Bosa’s development, added that “he’s just missing reps.”
The 2019 NFL season cycle began in March with its annual free agency frenzy. After a 4-12 season where San Francisco struggled on defense, especially in the takeaway department, upgrades to the secondary seemed inevitable.
Missing out on big-name free agents like Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu, the team decided to go a different route, signing former Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett, re-signing Jimmy Ward and Antone Exum Jr. Avoiding the secondary in the first five rounds of the draft, the 49ers added Tim Harris, a cornerback out of Virginia in the sixth round.
Adding both Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, as well as Kansas City Chiefs pass-rusher Dee Ford to pair with DeForest Buckner, the team’s rushing attack has potential to rise to the top of the league. The decision to not address the secondary in a major way has been brought into question, but it’s clear Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch trust their in-house talent.
An improved rush off the line gives the opposing quarterback less time to make plays downfield, something the 49ers have allowed many quarterbacks to do in years past. Addressing the pass rush creates an opportunity for the San Francisco defensive backfield to take that next step and establish itself after two underwhelming years under the new regime.
Deploying a very similar secondary to the one the team sent out in Week 1 of last season means Saleh is doubling down on players they currently have:
“You know the health is always the big deal. … I’ll start with [Richard Sherman], coming back and not even being two years removed from his achilles injury, he looks good out there. [Ahkello Witherspoon] has come with a renewed mindset. He’s looking like the person that we had a lot of faith in after the first half of his rookie year. Then you’ve got guys that are out there competing, you’ve got Verrett who’s chomping at the bit to get out there. It’s an exciting group to work with if we can stay healthy.”
Both Ward and Verrett are backs who had been surrounded by big expectations coming into the NFL. Both have struggled to stay healthy, but when they do, they’ve been solid. If healthy in 2019, Saleh said he views the two amongst the league best:
“When you see Jimmie play, his personality, his leadership skills, his work ethic, if you’re ever going to take a risk on somebody, he’s the guy. I have faith that he’s going to stay healthy this season, i do. Verrett is going to compete at corner, and when Verrett’s healthy, no different from Jimmie, he’s one of the top-twenty corners in all of football.”
Following Wednesday’s practice, 49ers cornerback Witherspoon and safety Jaquiski Tartt met with the media. Witherspoon was excited to hear about the newest additions to the defensive line:
“Yeah that’s huge. It makes my job easier, covering for two-three seconds compared to four or five, it makes a big difference. Also learning how to tie that in and play with them, I’m playing more aggressive, knowing that the ball is going to come out quick.”
When asked about the improved pass-rush, Tartt said pressure from the defensive line can force a quarterback to rush his throws and make mistakes downfield that he, Witherspoon and the rest of the secondary can take advantage of:
“With pressure, going back to the Seattle Seahawks, the year they won the Super Bowl. … The pressure that the defensive line brought had the quarterback throwing the ball high. They have to get the ball out instantly, you’ve got to be ready to break, so that’s a good thing.”
There’s no question the 49ers offense is capable, with Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo running plays, but for San Francisco to be a playoff contender in 2019, the defense needs to step up.
The 49ers secondary made plays all throughout practice on Wednesday. Richard Sherman was all over the place, and was involved in a couple of big pass-breakups. Ahkello Witherspoon also broke up a couple of passing plays. … Robert Saleh was asked about a timetable for when Kwon Alexander will begin practicing. He believes the team is still anticipating him returning to action by training camp. Saleh added that Jason Verrett will compete at cornerback, not guaranteeing a starting role. … In regards to Jimmie Ward, Saleh maintains a positive outlook on the situation. He says that usually Ward gets injured during the season, but is hoping that the injuries are out of the way early after his injury last week. … Both Tartt and Witherspoon doubled down on Sherman’s much-improved health from last season to this season. Tartt said that he noticed Sherman limping throughout last season.