49ers

49ers add Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford to defense for 'speed and violence'

49ers add Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford to defense for 'speed and violence'

The 49ers introduced two new free-agent acquisitions on Thursday, and both edge rusher Dee Ford and linebacker Kwon Alexander were brought in for the same traits.

“Speed and violence affect the quarterback,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said, “and make people do stupid things before they want to. Both of these guys have a lot of speed and they both play violently.” 

The 49ers received the dubious honor of breaking the record for the lowest turnover totals in 2018. They only mustered two interceptions (32nd) and recovered five fumbles (T-28th). Ford and Alexander were brought in to improve those statistics. 

“That wasn’t fun to watch,” general manager John Lynch said. “It is something we have to live with and it’s a reality and we needed to change that and you’re exactly right. These are the type of players that we believe can reverse that trend.” 

Shanahan recalled the first time he coached against Alexander as the Falcons' offensive coordinator. It seemed to leave a lasting impression. 

“He taught me a hard lesson that you better game plan for him,” Shanahan said, "because I didn’t the first game of 2016. We started out 0-1 because of it. It was bad. It was so bad that Julio asked me after the game if he could play fullback and block him.”

Shanahan is not just relieved to not have to face Alexander. Ford also has left a nightmarish impression on the 49ers head coach.

“You can turn on the tape,” Shanahan said, “and he scares you as a coach because you can see how fast he gets off the ball. Not all pass rushers you can see that. But as soon as you press play, you can see that. I’m glad don’t have to get freaked out watching that anymore.” 

Ford not only tallied 13 sacks in his final season with the Chiefs, he forced seven fumbles. That is more than half of the 13 that the entire 49ers defense managed in 2018. Ford also racked up 29 quarterback hits. Just for perspective, DeForest Buckner lead the team with 20. 

"Dee he has a knack for getting the ball out,” Lynch said. “And as Kyle said, that first step is lethal. We think that can help our entire team. Get that virus going where we’re taking away the ball on a regular basis.” 

Lynch noted that having Alexander on the defense should also help change the team’s lack of turnovers. 

[RELATED: Why Dee Ford fits mold of the 49ers' prototypical 'leo' edge rusher]

“Kwon, he’s always had a propensity,” Lynch said. “He’s always around the ball. There’s so many things to like, but that is definitely something that jumps.” 

Making the defense more aggressive was a priority for the 49ers this offseason as seen by their free-agency moves. They will have opportunities to improve it further with the defensive depth of this year's draft class as well. 

49ers defense taking on the personality of coordinator Robert Saleh

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USATSI

49ers defense taking on the personality of coordinator Robert Saleh

LOS ANGELES – The 49ers’ defense has taken on the personality of its coordinator.

The 49ers play with energy and passion, much the same way fist-pumping Robert Saleh coaches from the sideline.

On the field, D.J. Jones and others in the middle of the 49ers’ defensive line twice stacked up Los Angeles Rams running back Malcolm Brown at the goal line during a key sequence late in the first half. As the 49ers reacted with jubilation on the field, they were greeted by the Saleh going wild on the sideline.

“I’m not going to lie,” Saleh said afterward, “I black out during those moments. I get excited for the guys and their success. When they make big plays, I feel like I’m right there with them.

“When we fail, I’m right there with them, too. So, we’re always together.”

There have been no failing grades for the 49ers’ defense during the team’s five-game win streak to open the season. The defense has led the way, and on Sunday they provided all the momentum necessarily when they buckled down for an impressive goal-line stand to highlight the 49ers' 20-7 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

“It was huge – huge,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said. “Any time we get a fourth-down stop we treat that like a takeaway. It gives the offense energy, too. That was a big play.”

The 49ers’ defense was at their best on Sunday on third and fourth downs. The Rams failed to convert on any of their nine third-down plays. They were also 0-for-4 on fourth downs.

The Rams, playing without star running back Todd Gurley, leaned on Brown and rookie Darrell Henderson for their running game. Henderson gained 22 and 14 yards on back-to-back runs, as the Rams looked to break a 7-7 tie in the second quarter.

After Richard Sherman made a tackle of Henderson at the 1-yard line on a second-and-5 run play, Jones and Kwon Alexander stacked up Brown for no gain on a third down. Rams coach Sean McVay opted to go for it on fourth down.

Jones and Arik Armstead teamed up for the fourth-down tackle of Brown to thwart the Rams’ last best scoring chance. Jones didn’t even know how big of a play it was at the time.

“To be honest, I didn’t know it was fourth down because they were running that hurry-up and I didn’t get a chance to look up at the scoreboard,” Jones said. “It just feels good to be out there and know that 10 other guys have your back.”

Each time, the 49ers could look to the sideline to see their leader, Saleh and his unmistakable shiny bald head, reacting with delight, reveling in the successes of the defense.

“Any time, we get off the field, he’s pretty hyped,” Warner said.

“It’s awesome,” 49ers defensive lineman Solomon Thomas said. “Coach is a genius. He has a defensive football mind, and he loves to communicate with the players and understand what we’re seeing and getting everything into place. It’s special to play for him.”

Said defensive lineman Arik Armstead, “I notice him every now and then. It gets us fired up. He’s the leader of our defense from a coaching standpoint. To have him fired up and excited about what we’re doing on the field is a great feeling.”

Saleh came under fire the past two seasons for the 49ers’ defensive woes. Last year, the club set all-time NFL records in futility after generating just seven takeaways, including two interceptions. The 49ers won just 10 games in the first two seasons with Saleh serving as coach Kyle Shanahan's top defensive coach.

Shanahan had to answer questions over those first two seasons about whether he would consider firing Saleh as defensive coordinator. Shanahan remained a staunch support of Saleh. Now, Shanahan is answering questions about whether he might lose Saleh after this season to a head-coaching opporunity.

“The energy is infectious,” Thomas said. “It’s amazing to be out there. You feel like everybody has this swag to them. We go out there and play our game. We know how good we can be, so every time we have a chance to go out there, we can set a new standard for how good we are.”

The 49ers put together a defensive masterpiece to shut down Rams quarterback Jared Goff. Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman issued praise afterward for a long list of players and assistants, including safeties coach Daniel Bullocks and defensive backs/passing game coordinator Joe Woods.

“We just go out there and execute and play at a high level,” Sherman said. “Another testament to Saleh, and ‘DB’ and Joe Woods, because they came up with an incredible game plan, very sound, and we executed.”

49ers report card: Grades on offense, defense in 20-7 win over Rams

49ers report card: Grades on offense, defense in 20-7 win over Rams

LOS ANGELES -- The 49ers served notice they are for real with their 20-7 victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.

The Rams have set the standard in the NFC West the past two seasons. The 49ers rose to the occasion at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a dominating defensive performance in front of an appreciative crowd consisting of many red-clad supporters.

Here are the grades from the 49ers’ fifth consecutive victory to open the season:

Rushing offense

Playing without their starting offensive tackles and their do-everything fullback, the 49ers knew it would be impossible to continue to average 200 yards on the ground. Sure enough, the 49ers had a tough time getting anything going with their run game.

While the 49ers averaged just 2.4 yards on 41 rushing attempts, their two touchdowns came on the ground. Tevin Coleman scored on a 2-yard run, and Jimmy Garoppolo added a touchdown on a 1-yard sneak.

The 49ers picked up eight first downs rushing in the game, so it was not completely a lost cause with their run game.

Grade: B-minus

Passing offense

Garoppolo certainly has a couple of throws he would want back, including an interception in the end zone in which he threw the ball up for grabs. Marcus Peters made the pick as the 49ers let a golden scoring opportunity slip away in the second quarter.

Garoppolo completed 24 of 33 pass attempts for 243 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. He was sacked twice -- both by Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald -- and one of those sacks resulted in a lost fumble.

Tight end George Kittle, who was questionable with a groin injury going into the game, was the game’s best offensive player with eight receptions (on eight targets) for 103 yards. Dante Pettis had a good game with three important receptions for 45 yards.

The 49ers had two dropped passes on plays. Marquise Goodwin could not handle a deep ball from Garoppolo, which was underthrown. And Coleman, who was wide open, failed to make the grab of a pass in the end zone in the third quarter.

Grade: B-minus

Rushing Defense

This did not start well for the 49ers, who surrendered 56 yards and a touchdown on the Rams’ first drive. Los Angeles ran the ball on all seven plays to take an early 7-0 lead. After that, the 49ers allowed just 3.5 yards rushing per attempt to the Rams.

When the 49ers needed the run defense to come through, that’s exactly what happened near the end of the first half. Nose tackle D.J. Jones was in the mix to stop Rams running back Malcolm Brown on third- and fourth-down plays from the 1-yard line.

That sequence proved to be a big boost for the team. Riding that momentum into the second half, Arik Armstead recovered a fumble on the first play of the second half to set the stage for the 49ers’ go-ahead score.

Grade: A

Passing Defense

It might not be possible for the 49ers’ pass defense to play better than it did Sunday. Rams quarterback Jared Goff entered the game averaging 329.8 yards passing per game.

But the 49ers allowed him to complete 13 of 24 pass attempts for just 78 yards. Dee Ford recorded 1.5 sacks. Ronald Blair and Solomon Thomas added a sack apiece, while Armstead recorded a half-sack. The Rams managed just 56 net yards passing.

[RELATED: Watch 49ers DC lose his mind in dominant win over Rams]

The 49ers’ defense shut out the Rams on third and fourth downs. The Rams were 0-for-9 on third downs, and 0-for-4 on fourth downs. The coverage was exceptional throughout. The longest Rams pass play went for just 12 yards.

Free safety Jimmie Ward broke up back-to-back passes, including a fourth-down attempt to Cooper Kupp, to help close the door in the fourth quarter.

Grade: A-plus

Special Teams

Rams punter Johnny Hekker had a better day than Mitch Wishnowsky. Hekker’s net punting average of 46.2 yards topped Wishnowsky’s effort of 37.8 yards per attempt.

Richie James had a solid day with a 12.7 average on his three punt returns. The 49ers averted a near-disaster when a Rams penalty wiped out a potential turnover when D.J. Reed inadvertently touched a punted ball as he was blocking.

Robbie Gould made field goals of 25 and 34 yards, but he came up well short on a 55-yard attempt at the end of the first half. Wishnowsky made the tackle of JoJo Natson, who fielded the ball in the end zone.

Grade: B-minus

Overall

The 49ers played with Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill filling in for injured Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and right tackle. Tight ends Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo saw more action in place of fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who is out for a while with a knee injury.

The 49ers were able to overcome their injuries better than the Rams, who were missing running back Todd Gurley, edge rusher Clay Matthews and cornerback Aqib Talib.

The 49ers' defense was incredible after giving up a touchdown on the first drive of the game. The 49ers opened some eyes on Sunday and served notice that they belong in any conversation when the topic turns to the best teams in the NFL.

Grade: A