49ers

49ers' Joe Staley feeling 'a lot better' as he nears return to lineup

49ers' Joe Staley feeling 'a lot better' as he nears return to lineup

BRADENTON, Fla. – After missing the past three games with a broken right ring finger, 49ers left tackle Joe Staley is feeling better than when he briefly re-entered the lineup last month.

“A lot better,” Staley said Wednesday as the 49ers began preparing to face the New Orleans Saints with a two-hour practice the IMG Academy.

“Leg feels better, stronger, and (my) back’s feeling good. (My) finger is feeling better.”

Staley, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, missed six games earlier this season due to a fractured left fibula – the non-weight-bearing bone of his lower leg. When he returned to face the Seattle Seahawks on Nov. 11, he was probably was not physically ready, and it showed. Seattle defensive end Jadevon Clowney recorded a sack and 10 quarterback hurries in the Seahawks' 27-24 victory over the 49ers.

Staley's left leg was lacking in strength, which might have caused the issues he experienced with his back, too. Then, he sustained a broken and dislocated finger against the Seahawks. His injury required surgery and another three games on the sideline.

“It’s been hard, honestly,” Staley said. “It’s been hard. It’s just one day at a time, and you try to keep yourself mentally into it. Then, coming back for the Seattle game, and body not feeling the way it did, having the setback with the finger and having to miss more games. It’s been hard.”

Staley, a 13-year pro, has experienced bad, good and more bad throughout his career with the 49ers. Now, the team has turned the corner and is in the hunt for NFC homefield advantage with a 10-2 record. Staley has been a spectator for all but three games this season.

“Late in my career and having to wait around for the team to be what it is right now, and feeling like you’re not a part of it,” Staley said.

Rookie Justin Skule started eight games in place of Staley at left tackle. Last week, Daniel Brunskill moved into the starting lineup.

Staley, 35, has saved some wear on his body and could be feeling strong for the final month of the season and the playoffs. But he said the downside of missing so much action outweighs the positive.

[RELATED: Sherman, Ford back at practice]

“I missed out on two months of reps, two months of practices, two months of being on the details,” Staley said. “That’s what makes you good. It’s not just saving yourself for the playoffs. I missed out on a lot of work.

“I’ll be feeling a little better that way (physically), but it’s all about every single day getting those reps. I’m excited about getting back out there and start working.”

Richard Sherman vividly explains why 49ers don't shadow wide receivers

Richard Sherman vividly explains why 49ers don't shadow wide receivers

SANTA CLARA -- Though Richard Sherman is a graduate of Stanford University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning on planet earth, his Thursday afternoon analysis of defensive strategy came straight outta Compton.

The subject was man-to-man coverage and Sherman’s avowed comfort at left cornerback.

The insinuation was that an opposing team could, theoretically, neutralize Sherman, surely the 49ers' best cornerback and perhaps tops in the NFL, by sending its best receiver to the opposite side of the field.

That the Green Bay Packers, for example, might frequently deploy No. 1 receiver Davante Adams to the right side of the San Francisco defense when the teams meet Sunday to decide the NFL representative in Super Bowl LIV.

It would not be illogical, in this instance, to have Sherman “shadow” Adams. Many defensive coordinators have made that request of their top cover corner.

Sherman proceeded to eviscerate that plan by using what folks in his hometown refer to as common sense.

“We have the No. 1 pass defense in this league,” the Compton native said while standing at the podium in the interview auditorium, “and we haven’t done it.”

The statistics absolutely support Sherman’s claim and his dismissiveness toward making a change that might convey a measure of desperation by the 49ers.

With Sherman almost exclusively on the left side, San Francisco in the regular season was the NFL’s top pass defense, allowing an average of 169.2 yards per game – the lowest average allowed by any team since 2009, when the Jets limited passers to an average of 153.7.

Moreover, the 49ers led the league in net yards per attempt at 4.8 and tied with the Patriots for fewest first downs allowed via pass, averaging 9.4 per game.

These numbers are among the factors that have made defensive coordinator Robert Saleh a candidate to become a head coach. They undoubtedly influence Sherman’s belief in Saleh, and as long as the numbers confirm no change is needed there will be request to follow Adams on Sunday or any other receiver on any other team.

“I love it how people are like, ‘Oh, my gawd, these guys need to do this,’ ” Sherman said in his usual audacious tone. “Well, I’m going to let you know something: You go to your job and tell your boss what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do and see how long you last.

“Saleh calls the defense. If Saleh comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you follow this guy everywhere he goes,' then that’s what I’m going to do. If he doesn’t, guess what? I’m going to do what he told me to do. That’s how coaching and player relationships work.

“And it just so happens, we have the No. 1 pass defense in the league,” he reiterated before sprinkling bits of sarcasm with his truth. “Whoa! Oh, my gawd! It’s crazy. Crazy that you’re not following anybody but, somehow, you’ve got the No. 1 pass defense in the league. It’s almost like our strategy works. It’s almost like you’re in idiot for doing it any other way. It’s almost like you’re dumb if you do it another way. It’s almost like people who have been saying, ‘Oh, do it this way’ for so long, but they don’t have the No. 1 defense.”

For Sherman, and for Saleh, it’s about doing what has worked. What succeeds. What wins. Is there a risk to staying true to their tendencies? Perhaps. If Adams avoids Sherman and torches Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon – and the latter has been vulnerable – and Green Bay prevails, there will be second-guessing. Because there always is.

Don’t expect it from Sherman, who posed a rhetorical scenario that essentially has a great left tackle shadowing a great pass rusher, no matter where he goes. This does not happen, nor can it ever be expected.

Until it does, Sherman has one criterion for any strategy involving his placement.

[RELATED: 49ers focused on Rodgers' patented move]

“Does it help us win the game? Is it going to help the defense? Is it going to help us limit their explosive (plays)? Then I’ll do it,” he said. “If it’s not. If it doesn’t make a difference, if it’s ... then that’s what I’m going to do.”

It’s not that he never has shadowed a receiver. He has done it against Atlanta’s Julio Jones, against Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. But as a rule, no.

So when the topic was floated this time, Sherman was armed and ready, and filled the room with facts.

How 49ers plan to stop Aaron Rodgers' potent 'wrist flick from hell'

How 49ers plan to stop Aaron Rodgers' potent 'wrist flick from hell'

SANTA CLARA -- Type “Aaron Rodgers” and “Hail Mary” into a search engine and the suggested terms drop down in an impressive list. Google offers to combine what you’ve typed with: “vs. Giants,” “vs. Cardinals,” and “vs. Lions.”

There probably are a few more in the Internet’s memory bank. The Green Bay Packers quarterback has a knack for doing the improbable. The 49ers will be cognizant of that Sunday in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.

When pressed for a memory watching Rodgers over the years, 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner brought up that Lions game from 2015. Rodgers zigged and zagged around prospective tacklers as time expired and effortlessly sent a mile high -- and equally far -- Hail Mary to complete an improbable comeback.

The 49ers have a term for that.

"It’s just funny, because we used to call it ‘the wrist flick from hell,’” Buckner said Thursday. “He would start avoiding rushers and everything and then you see that wrist flick and you think, ‘Oh, Lord.’ You know what I mean? You see him do that and you know someone’s going to come down with it. He’s just a special player.”

Last year’s defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina coined the term while the 49ers were watching film. It’s both accurate and apt, considering Rodgers can do things most signal-callers can’t.

The 49ers defensive line is aware of that and has to respect the possibility when rushing such a talented, athletic quarterback. Rodgers isn’t necessarily quick like Kyler Murray or as willing to break the pocket as Russell Wilson, but he can move and create space and avoid negative plays just the same.

That aspect of his game, Buckner said, must be respected a feared a little bit.

“He can extend plays. He’s good getting outside the pocket and knowing where the rush is at if he stays in the pocket,” Buckner said. “He can get out of the way and make guys miss. He can break free and make you pay the way Russell Wilson does. We just need to take it one play at a time and go with the same mindset the last time we played him and the same mindset we had last week. Our guys took it personal and told themselves that they weren’t going to be blocked.”

[RELATED: What Packers' Davante Adams learned from watching 49ers' Jerry Rice]

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins isn’t Rodgers-like, but he can play. An excellent 49ers defensive line featuring Buckner, Dee Ford, Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead relentlessly hounded Cousins to the tune of six sacks and 23 total pressures in last Saturday's NFC Divisional Playoff.

The 49ers sacked Rodgers seven times and had 25 pressures in a Week 12 matchup with the Packers, and will have to be equally effective and create some scoreboard separation to avoid falling victim to the “wrist flick from hell.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (6 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday)

Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 6:30 p.m.