SANTA CLARA – Dee Ford has been out far too long for the 49ers’ taste.

The lightning-quick edge rusher has battled quadriceps and hamstring strains since Week 12, with a return to action at New Orleans cut short four snaps in by an injury aggravation.

That put him back on the shelf three more games and four more weeks, before a return to practice leading up to Saturday’s home divisional-round playoff game against Minnesota.

“Dee’s coming along good,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Wednesday. “He has some things to work through this week, but so far so good.”

The 49ers are crossing fingers that he can play.

Here’s why: The 49ers are a good defensive front without him. They’re a great defensive front with him in the lineup.

We’re still not sure if he’ll be available to play the Vikings. Hamstring strains can be testy, good one day and too tight the next.

His impact on the 49ers coming in hot off the edge on passing downs is never in doubt.

“When you have a guy like Dee on the field, a guy with the speed he possesses off the edge, it creates so much space for guys inside,” Saleh said. “Whenever you have a guy outside that creates space where you get a true one-on-one, where they can’t get a hand on you or slide over a double team, it makes everyone on the defensive line better and unlocks everything. He’s a major asset. That’s why he’s one of the best in football. Hopefully, he keeps moving in the right direction and we can get him back.”

 

DeForest Buckner is a beneficiary of Ford’s presence as well. Having Ford and Nick Bosa coming hot of each edge spreads the protection wide and thin, leaving room for the second-team All-Pro to create maximum havoc.

“Having him out there really affects blocking schemes,” Buckner said. “Dee’s a really good pass rusher, so defenses have to pick and choose who they’re going to double team or slide protection towards. With him and Nick on the edge, they can’t slide one way or the other. They’ll have to pick and choose.”

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The 49ers will have to wait and see if Ford is ready -- if trainers will let him loose on Minnesota or hope an extra week of rest could help make an impact in the NFC Championship Game, should they make it there.

“It’s been a while since we’ve had all those guys back on the field together,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “The more weapons we have, the more powerful we’re going to be on Saturday.”