How 49ers' revamped pass rush can change opposing offense's approach

How 49ers' revamped pass rush can change opposing offense's approach

The 49ers’ pass defense was horrible last season.

That is not any kind of revelation. The numbers speak for themselves.

The 49ers’ opponent passer rating was next-to-last in the league at 105.5 – the equivalent of facing the NFL’s fifth-rated passer Philip Rivers every week. The 49ers registered two interceptions – the worst single-season mark in NFL history -- while giving up 35 touchdown passes.

Based on the numbers, the 49ers’ pass rush was bad but not atrocious. The 49ers ranked tied for 22nd in the league with 37 sacks – seven more sacks than Super Bowl-champion New England.

But 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh measures the pass rush on the impact it has on the opposition, and that’s where the 49ers failed miserably to strike any fear into opposing offenses.

Saleh relayed statistical information that the 49ers’ defense faced in the neighborhood of 30 snaps last season in which offenses got the ball out quickly with quick-developing shallow routes – the kind of plays that gives the pass rush no chance to affect the quarterback. The vast majority of pass plays the 49ers faced were long-developing, down-the-field routes because offenses had no fear of the 49ers' pass rush.

Saleh referenced Jacksonville, the Los Angeles Chargers and Dallas as teams that faced three times more of those quick-hitting plays. That is more along the lines of what the 49ers want to face this season.

“That tells us that they’re afraid of their pass rush,” Saleh said. “So they’re not designing routes that are where quarterbacks can take one, two and three hitches. The ball’s got to come out.

“So when an offense changes the way they approach us and the way they attack us, then I know that we’re getting pressure on the quarterback and we’re changing their entire philosophy on how they want to attack us.”

The 49ers’ top outside pass-rushers last season were Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair. The club overhauled their nickel pass rush this offseason with the acquisition of Dee Ford in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. The club then selected the player they had evaluated as the best edge rusher in the draft, Nick Bosa, with the No. 2 overall pick. Bosa is expected to sit out the remainder of the offseason program to allow a grade-one strain of his right hamstring to heal before the start of training camp in late-July.

As a result of the additions of Ford and Bosa, the 49ers cut Marsh. Now, Blair is the team's No. 3 edge rusher.

The 49ers invested their resources in the pass rush, a clear signal that they are satisfied with the defensive backfield. Veteran cornerback Jason Verrett, who has appeared in only 25 games in five NFL seasons due to a variety of injuries, was the only major addition.

Verrett figures to be in competition with a rejuvenated Ahkello Witherspoon at right cornerback, while veteran Richard Sherman is set at left cornerback.

[RELATED: Coaches believe 49ers have enough talent at safety positions]

The club also re-signed versatile Jimmie Ward to a one-year deal after evaluating him as the team’s best defensive back during the nine games he played last season. But for the fourth time in five years, Ward's season ended with a broken bone. For the second season in a row, he was placed on injured reserve with a fractured left forearm -- the same arm but at a different spot as his season-ending fracture in 2017. Ward’s offseason program came to an end two weeks ago when he sustained a fractured collarbone. He is expected to be ready for football activity in eight to 12 weeks.

A healthy Ward is the front-runner to start at free safety, with Adrian Colbert and Tarvarius Moore competing for playing time, as well. Jaquiski Tartt is penciled in as the starter at strong safety with second-year player Marcell Harris behind him.

“It’s a really talented group,” Saleh said. “There’s a lot of natural competition at those spots. It’s unfortunate what happened to Jimmie, but we have a lot of confidence in that group because it really is a talented group. It’s just got to stay healthy.”

Frank Clark calls out 49ers' Dee Ford for 'dumb' AFC title game penalty

Frank Clark calls out 49ers' Dee Ford for 'dumb' AFC title game penalty

Players often kick themselves after committing penalties in the NFL, especially when that penalty proves costly.

But there perhaps wasn’t a more devastating penalty than the one then-Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Dee Ford committed in last year’s AFC Championship Game.

An offsides penalty late in the fourth quarter brought a game-clinching interception back and gave the New England Patriots another shot at glory, which they took and ultimately won the game in overtime.

Now a member of the 49ers, Ford hasn’t forgotten the gaffe by any means. And Frank Clark, the new star of the Chiefs’ defensive line, isn’t going to let him forget it either.

"I just know he had lined up offside, and anybody who lined up offside at a time like that I feel like that's a dumb penalty at the end of the day," he said, h/t ESPN's Adam Teicher. "I'm sure he feels the same way. Personally, I've lined up offside before but not in that type of [situation] ... In any [situation] that's just something that shouldn't happen."

Clark already hadn’t been quiet this postseason, calling out Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry ahead of Kansas City’s AFC Championship win a few weeks ago.

Clark can talk all he wants, but the Chiefs defense will have its hands full with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers offense.

[RELATED: Shanahan explains why 49ers passed on Mahomes in '17 draft]

San Francisco actually outpaced the high-octane Chiefs offense in total yards this season, and in the NFC Championship Game, the Niners set a host of team playoff records, including tailback Raheem Mostert rushing for 220 yards and four touchdowns.

He'll have to back it up Sunday when the two teams go head-to-head for Super Bowl LIV from Hard Rock Stadium.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.

Kurt Warner sees two quarterbacks who do what it takes for their teams to win

Kurt Warner sees two quarterbacks who do what it takes for their teams to win

MIAMI -- Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to the Super Bowl with his strong and accurate throwing arm.

Jimmy Garoppolo handed the ball off repeatedly during the 49ers’ postseason run.

But both quarterbacks in Super Bowl LIV have succeeded in accomplishing the same thing for their team, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner said in an interview Tuesday with NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Whether you throw eight passes in a championship game or you bring your team back from 24 points down, you have to do whatever you have to do at the quarterback position to win,” Warner said.

“I believe both of these guys have done that this year. There’ve been huge moments for Jimmy Garoppolo. The win down in New Orleans is one that jumps out to me. Hey, we got to go score 40 points? I can score 40 points. We got to hand the ball off every time and I throw eight passes? I can do that and I’m fine with that, as long as we win football games.”

Mahomes and Garoppolo did it in different ways, but they have proven to be the right quarterbacks for the Chiefs and the 49ers.

There are a lot of differences, but there is a similarity, too, Warner pointed out. Both players were backups for at least one season behind respected veteran quarterbacks. Alex Smith set a great example for Mahomes, while Garoppolo spent 3 ½ seasons behind Tom Brady, one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

“I think there’s a maturity to understand what goes into being an NFL quarterback and handling everything that comes with that,” Warner said. “Both of those guys got to learn from really good NFL quarterbacks, Alex Smith and Tom Brady.

“So you learn something from them on how you lead a franchise. I think both of them have done a tremendous job early in their careers at doing just that. And, now, early in their starting careers, they’re in the Super Bowl.”

Warner said he believes the key matchup of Sunday’s game will be the 49ers’ pass rush against Mahomes. The 49ers must find a way to get Mahome out of rhythm and prevent him from connecting on big plays down the field.

The 49ers’ offense has to control the clock and keep Mahomes on the sideline. Then, the pass rush has to make it difficult for Mahomes to have time to get the ball down the field to the Chiefs’ speedy wide receivers.

[RELATEDKyle Shanahan explains why 49ers passed on Patrick Mahomes in 2017 NFL draft]

“A lot of that is going to fall on those pass-rushers up front,” Warner said. ‘Can they get quick pressure on Patrick Mahomes. What do we know about the Kansas City Chiefs? They want to throw the ball down the field, and they want to make big plays. You have to force them to go away from what they do really well.”

Meanwhile, Garoppolo has to enter this game expecting to put the team on his back after playing an auxiliary role in the 49ers’ 17-point victories over Minnesota and Green Bay in the playoffs.

“If you’re a quarterback and you’ve dreamed of playing in this big moment, you want to be a huge part of why you win, and that’s what you prepare for this week,” Warner said.