How 49ers' defense got its speed, mojo back in demolition of Vikings

How 49ers' defense got its speed, mojo back in demolition of Vikings

SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers’ defense got its mojo back. 

San Francisco's dominating 27-10 NFC divisional-round win over the Minnesota Vikings was like a flashback to the first half of the season with three vital pieces returning to the line up -- Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander and Jaquiski Tartt. 

Even to an amateur eye, the defense looked faster. Prior to their final two drives, the Vikings were held to only four first downs and under 100 yards of total offense. According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers pressured quarterback Kirk Cousins on 17 of his 35 dropbacks. 

After the game, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was glowing in the locker room with an ear-to-ear smile. 

“Yeah, they are pretty good,” Saleh said of the pass rush. “Dee unlocks everything so getting him back was big time for us.”  

The speed that the defense showed early in the season returned against the Vikings. It was a product of not only getting key players back but having extra time off for everyone to get healthy and refreshed. 

“Oh yeah,” Saleh said. “It felt very fast. To get the bye week last week was enormous. So now they got to get fresh again and do it again next week. Any extra day helps.” 

Five different 49ers defensive linemen were responsible for six sacks and nine quarterback hits against Cousins and the Vikings. Fred Warner thinks the defense has the ability to be even more stout.

“You see how it is when we got all our pieces out there -- how it looks,” the linebacker said. “I think it’s honestly just a start. I think we could have even been better today. Man, I feel like I didn't even have to play a game honestly. 

“We ran a lot of man coverage on third down, let the big boys up front go eat. I'd be in man coverage, hear cheering. They did outstanding upfront. It was a huge team win all around.”

Nick Bosa, who was responsible for two sacks, three quarterback hits, two tackles for a loss  and one pass break up noted the difference in the speed at which they were able to perform. 

“Yeah, the whole vibe, the whole energy, it's just different,” Bosa said. “Has other teams just trying to find answers. But, yeah, I mean, just having Dee is a huge boost for the D-Line.”

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DeForest Buckner also benefitted from Ford's return, registering one sack, one quarterback hit and two tackles for a loss. 

“Dee's speed off the edge is one of a kind,” Buckner said. “It really opens up more opportunity for the guys in the inside, also for Nick on the opposite side. They can't pick and choose every time on where they want to slide the protection or who they want to double. They have to change it up. It's very challenging when you have four guys that can rush the passer.”

The 49ers came away from Saturday’s win without any new injuries and look to have the same lineup available when they face the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday at Levi's Stadium. 

Why NFL history, Aaron Rodgers' past bode well for 49ers vs. Packers

Why NFL history, Aaron Rodgers' past bode well for 49ers vs. Packers

If the Green Bay Packers are going to upset the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Levi's Stadium, they're going to have to do it without history on their side.

It has been less than two months since the 8-2 Packers waltzed into Levi's Stadium hoping to knock off the conference-leading 49ers on "Sunday Night Football" in Week 12. By halftime -- if not much earlier -- it was readily apparent no such event would occur, as San Francisco raced out to a 23-0 lead on its way to a 37-8 win. It was a thoroughly dominant performance by the 49ers, and resulted in Green Bay's most lopsided defeat of the season.

The Packers haven't lost since, winning their final five games of the regular season to earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. They held on to beat the visiting Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round, but historically speaking, all that momentum might not mean much as it pertains to a rematch with San Francisco. As NFL.com's Chris Wesseling noted, the last 13 playoff teams to lose a regular-season game by at least 20 points have also lost the postseason rematch against the same opponent.

Now, obviously, not all teams are created equal, and in a sport where quarterback is the most critical position, one might argue that the Packers have a significant advantage over those previous 13 teams that have occupied the same space they will Sunday.

That wouldn't necessarily be accurate, though.

Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers will go down as one of the best QBs of all-time, and while he has put together several memorable postseason performances, he has not had much playoff success against teams he previously lost to that same season. In fact, the last five times he and the Packers qualified for the playoffs, they were eliminated by a team that had beaten them earlier that season.

[RELATED: Beathard gets 49ers scout-team honors for imitating Rodgers]

That obviously bodes well for San Francisco, and that's before even digging into the specific head-to-head matchup between Rodgers and the 49ers' top-ranked pass defense. Throughout his career, Rodgers has faced the No. 1-ranked pass defense a total of five times; he has not fared well in those matchups, and has never won one on the road.

There's a reason why the 49ers were the NFC's No. 1 seed, and there are plenty more as to why San Francisco is favored by more than a touchdown over Green Bay on Sunday. The Packers are going to have to overcome plenty to prove victorious, and you can add NFL history to the list.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage 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.

Richard Sherman recalls interception in 49ers-Seahawks NFC title game

Richard Sherman recalls interception in 49ers-Seahawks NFC title game

Not all nostalgia is good nostalgia.

The last time San Francisco advanced to the NFC Championship Game, the game was ended on an interception from then-Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith.

The man who deflected the pass to Smith -- cornerback Richard Sherman -- now wears a 49ers uniform. But he can recall, in vivid detail, one of the most heartbreaking moments young 49ers fans have experienced. One he was the architect of during his reign as the leader of the infamous “Legion of Boom.”

As receiver Michael Crabtree broke out of his route, Sherman wasn’t going to bite on any short routes from the 49ers’ then-No. 1 receiver.

“As he stuttered, I’m thinking to myself, ‘There’s no reason to stutter,’” Sherman told The Athletic’s Matt Barrows. “‘You’re not running a hitch. You’re not in a position to run a hitch. That’s not the play y’all need.’”

Despite losing the ball in the bright lights of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, Sherman still managed to make a game-defining play.

“The ball comes in, and then it comes right out of the lights,” Sherman recalled. “And now I’m blinded from looking at the light, so I can’t see it. But I’m dialed into where it should be. And I’m just starting to refocus back and I’m going up to get it.”

[RELATED: 49ers list no injuries ahead of NFC title game vs. Packers]

Sherman managed to get a hand on the ball and bat it away from Crabtree and into the arms of Smith, sending the 49ers home and the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLVIII. 

Sunday gives Sherman another chance to help send a team to the Super Bowl, as he and the 49ers play host to the Green Bay Packers with a trip to Miami on the line.