49ers

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. 

How 49ers' depth is affected by Shon Coleman, Travis Benjamin opt outs

How 49ers' depth is affected by Shon Coleman, Travis Benjamin opt outs

The 49ers acquired offensive tackle Shon Coleman in a trade prior to the 2018 season as insurance.

He was not needed in his first season as he learned the system, spent last year on injured reserve and will not be available in 2020 after opting at the Thursday deadline due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. Coleman is a cancer survivor.

Speedy slot receiver and return man Travis Benjamin was signed in the offseason to compete with Trent Taylor and Richie James. But he will not take part in that battle for playing time or a roster spot. He opted out early in the week.

In all, three 49ers decided to opt-out of the upcoming season as part of a league-wide group of 69 players.

Offensive lineman Jake Brendel, who was in camp with the 49ers, became the third member of the organization to opt out. He appeared in 21 games with the Miami Dolphins from 2016 to ’18. Brendel entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie with the Dallas Cowboys in 2016. He spent time with Denver and Baltimore but did not get into a regular-season game.

Brendel was a long-shot to make the team. But he could have remained on the team’s list as an emergency fill-in for later in the season.

And while neither Coleman nor Benjamin was not assured of making the team’s 53-man roster out of training camp, it does not take much of an imagination to envision a scenario in which either or both could have been counted on to fill big roles.

The 49ers will retain the contracts rights for Coleman, Benjamin and Brendel for 2021.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Coleman entered camp a year ago as the favorite to be the team’s swing offensive tackle -- the game-day backup to then-left tackle Joe Staley and right tackle Mike McGlinchey. The 49ers had to scramble after Coleman sustained a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle in the team’s first preseason game.

Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill served as the backup tackles and both did commendable jobs under the circumstances. This year, the 49ers added West Virginia offensive lineman Colton McKivitz in the fifth round of the draft.

Brunskill will compete for the starting job at right guard with veteran Tom Compton and McKivitz. The losers of that competition, along with Skule, will be in play to serve in the backup role for which Coleman would have been competing.

Coleman's decision couldn't have been viewed as a surprise. He was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia as a senior in high school in 2010, approximately six weeks after signing his letter of intent to play at Auburn. He redshirted as a college freshman in 2011 and returned to practice on a limited basis in 2012. He started at left tackle for Auburn in 2014 and ’15.

The Cleveland Browns selected Coleman in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He saw action in seven games with the Browns as a rookie before starting all 16 games in 2017 at right tackle.

Benjamin wrote in a statement that opting out was “the best decision for my family.” He would have been reunited with coach Kyle Shanahan, who was his offensive coordinator in 2014 with the Browns.

The receiver has battled injuries in recent seasons. Benjamin had just 18 receptions for 216 yards and one touchdown in 17 games over the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers. The best season of his eight-year NFL career came in 2015 with Cleveland when he caught 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns.

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The 49ers have high hopes for slot receiver Trent Taylor, who was expected to be a top contributor the past two years. A back injury limited him in 2018 and a fractured foot and five subsequent procedures wiped out his 2019 season.

If Taylor remains healthy, the impact of losing Benjamin should be softened.

But, like missing Coleman along the offensive line, the 49ers have less depth at wide receiver at the start of an uncertain training camp and season without Benjamin on the team.

Joe Montana reflects on 49ers' Dwight Clark as the 'ultimate teammate'

Joe Montana reflects on 49ers' Dwight Clark as the 'ultimate teammate'

Editor's Note: Joe Montana wrote an essay about his long-time friend and 49ers teammate Dwight Clark for the book, “Letters to 87,” which has raised money for the Golden Heart Fund. Clark passed away on June 4, 2018, after a two-year battle with ALS. The 49ers celebrate the legacy of Clark, whose No. 87 is retired, annually on Aug. 7 or 8/7. Montana’s essay is reprinted here with permission from Cameron Books.

We didn’t think about it in the moment. We didn’t realize how important it was at the time. All we knew was that we were going to the Super Bowl.

At that point, we were looking forward to going to our first Super Bowl. We weren’t looking back. But after the season was over, and we won Super Bowl XVI, people started talking about The Catch and how important it was to get us past the Cowboys.

What everyone loved about Dwight was his personality. Even if he had not caught that pass, his personality would not have changed. He was the same jovial guy before The Catch as he was after.

We came to the 49ers together in the 1979 draft. Dwight was an easy guy to like. We spent a lot of time working together before and after practice. The bond kept building that way, as we laughed and joked with each other.

We lived together in the beginning and ended up getting a place in Hayward on C Street. It was the only place we could afford. We drove back and forth every day across the Bay to practice in Redwood City. After practice our car just automatically went straight to Wendy’s. We ate together and did everything together.

To a certain degree, we built chemistry on the field. But he was the kind of receiver that was perfect for any quarterback. He was a big target and could read defenses well. We had a lot of adjustments in that offense that had to be made after the play started. I knew where he was going to be. As a quarterback, you need people you can trust to be on the same page. If he and I weren’t on the same page 100 percent of the time, we were 99.9 percent of the time. And when things broke down, he was always looking for me. He would come back and try to help in any way he could.

DC was the ultimate teammate. This is a guy who played in college across from Jerry Butler, one of the top receivers in the nation at the time. Dwight never said a word. Then, after we won a couple of Super Bowls, here comes John Taylor and Jerry Rice. That was a difficult transition from where he had been. He always put the team first. I’m sure one of the first things that came to his mind was, “It feels like I’m back at Clemson, playing behind an All-American.” But if he thought it, he did not say anything -- not even to me.

Dwight’s place in 49ers history was secure after making The Catch. On that play against the Cowboys, we had never thrown the ball to Dwight. It was basically his job to set a screen for Freddie Solomon, the inside receiver. But Freddie slipped and fell. Dwight had to get to the end line and come across the back side. For me, it was just a matter of buying time until he got to where he needed to be.

He had good position on the defensive back Everson Walls, so I let the ball go. I thought it was arm’s length above his head. I didn’t know it was that high. I got knocked down and never saw it. But when he made The Catch, I heard the crowd roar. I thought, “Okay, touchdown, we scored.” I did not realize until later how great of a play it was.

As the years moved on, Dwight totally understood how important that play was to all 49er fans, players, and everyone associated with the team. It was great for him. It was something that enabled him to connect with fans on a personal level. He could look back on that play with great pride. It was a wonderful memory to be a part of something so important, not only in 49er history but NFL history.

Every time you see something on memorable and important moments in NFL history, that play gets shown.

But Dwight also realized that it took the entire team. If Eric Wright does not make that tackle, and if Lawrence Pillers does not force that fumble, that play does not mean anything. Dwight never lost sight of that.

On Oct. 21, 2018, the 49ers unveiled statues of Dwight and me outside of Levi’s Stadium that depict The Catch. Sadly, my old friend was not around to take part in the ceremony.

He would have loved it. He would have been the ultimate kid, acting like a typical hard-core 49ers fan. That would have been Dwight. He would have had the best time in front of that statue, just soaking up the moment.

Seeing the statues for the first time was a humbling experience. You realize the importance of the moment that will always connect us.

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NBC Sports Bay Area will re-air the documentary “Letters to 87” on Friday at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Steve Young, Keena Turner, Mike Wilson and Jeff Clark, Dwight’s brother, will join Matt Maiocco at 2 p.m. on Friday to discuss D.C.’s legacy on a video conference. Click here at 2 p.m. to join.