A big reason — perhaps, the big reason — the 49ers’ pass defense has been so effective over the second half of the season is because of how well the 49ers have defended the run.
“It definitely goes hand in hand,” 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa said. “I think we’re stopping the run at an incredible rate this year.”
One of the keys for the 49ers to be able to slow down the Dallas Cowboys’ top-ranked offense on Sunday in an NFC playoff game will be their ability to contain running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
Over the final eight games of the regular season, the 49ers’ run defense might have been the strongest part of the team. The opposition averaged just 3.11 yards on 187 rushing attempts against the 49ers’ defense.
Nose tackle D.J. Jones has been a force in the middle of the 49ers’ defensive front on base downs. His 35 run stops — defined by Pro Football Focus as a “win” for the defense — ranks tied for first among all interior linemen and tied for third overall in the NFL.
Linebackers Fred Warner (28) and Azeez Al-Shaair (24), and defensive linemen Arik Armstead (22) and Bosa (21) also rank highly for making tackles near the line of scrimmage.
And those successes on run downs have enabled the 49ers to unleash their pass rush. Even with their issues at cornerback this season, the 49ers rank sixth in the league, allowing just 206.5 yards passing per game.
The heat the pass rush generates has taken some of the pressure off the team's defensive backs. It all starts with the run defense.
“That just gives you so many more opportunities on second and third down to get to the quarterback,” Bosa said. “It’s definitely a testament to the interior guys: Arik, D.J., (Kentavius) Street, Kevin (Givens), getting Mo (Hurst) back.
“They’re just playing at an extremely high level, all four of them, and Samson (Ebukam) is setting edges really well. He’s really got a hang of this scheme, and Arden (Key), too. So everybody’s really playing well.”
The benefits of a strong rushing attack can be seen when the 49ers have the football. The ability to run effectively has taken the heat off the 49ers’ offensive line and enabled quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to distribute the ball to his top targets in the passing game.
“Good defense and running the ball helps you win in the playoffs,” Bosa said, “so we have those things and we’re hoping that can lead us in the right direction.”