The 49ers’ defensive line is responsible for 28 of the team’s 30 sacks on the season, and three players are on pace to reach double-digit sack numbers.
Nick Bosa leads the 49ers with seven sacks, while Arik Armstead (5.5) and Dee Ford (five) are not far behind. DeForest Buckner has added four sacks, while Ronald Blair has three sacks.
There are a lot of factors that have gone into the improvements from a year ago, including the additions of edge rushers Bosa and Ford. Another newcomer has appeared to supply an upgrade, as well.
The 49ers have implemented a wide-nine alignment on the defensive line, which defensive line coach Kris Kocurek brought with him to the 49ers. The 49ers hired Kocurek after being let go as part of the changes to the Miami Dolphins coaching staff. He replaced Jeff Zgonina in that role with the 49ers.
On Friday, I was a guest on “Cliff and Puck” on Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle. Former Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril played four seasons with Kocurek as his defensive line coach with the Detroit Lions. Avril registered a career-best 11 sacks in 2011 under the direction of Kocurek.
When asked about the improvements to the 49ers’ pass defense this season, this is what I had to say:
"I think there are a lot of factors involved in this. It’s the third year of the system, so guys know what they’re doing a little bit better. The carryover guys are in a better position. I also think the addition of Kris Kocurek as the defensive line coach has made a tremendous impact and really helped some of the guys, especially Arik Armstead.
"The top two edge rushers for the 49ers last year were Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair. Cassius Marsh was cut in the offseason, and Ronald Blair is now their third edge rusher and doing a pretty good job in a very specialized role. But you’ve taken the top two guys and pretty much pushed them aside and brought in Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, and that’s going to make everybody around them better.
"How many sacks they have (30), all but two are from the defensive line. So they have not been bringing extra pressure at all. They’ve been able to rush four guys, play coverage and the corners – (Richard) Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams, the nickel back -- and the safeties, those guys are not having to cover for 4 ½ seconds. Those guys know the ball is going to come out quickly because the pass rush is going to get there."
Avril played for Kocurek from 2009, his second year in the NFL, through 2012, before moving on to the Seahawks.
"Talk to me a little more about Kris Kocurek because he was my defensive line coach in Detroit, and I understand the philosophy behind getting off the ball and you play the run on your way to the quarterback," Avril said. "I don’t think he gets enough credit for what the 49ers are doing, but the addition of Kris Kocurek, definitely changed the narrative of that defense.”
Kocurek has a unique, high-energy and loud coaching style on the practice field. Here is how I responded to Avril:
"I don’t think there’s any question and, Cliff, your ears are probably still ringing from Kris Kocurek yelling in practices. I got to be honest, the first time in the offseason program I went out there, and I was standing next to the defensive line, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, is this guy crazy? Is he going to be able to make it through the season?’ I was concerned I was watching this guy have some kind of breakdown. But, no, that’s the way he was on Day 1, and that’s the way he is today. He’s just full of intensity. He’s such an upgrade, as far as a defensive line coach, over what they had, and they went out and got him.
"Robert Saleh grew in Michigan, so he always had an eye and an ear open to what was going on with the Detroit Lions, and when Kris Kocurek became available after last season, they pounced. This was a guy they felt could really help this defense, and he’s done a really good job. I guess what he does is he simulates the intensity of a game during practice and that’s tough to do because some guys kind of coast through practice a little realizing the game is on Sunday. But Kocurek has these guys in this frame of mind that every day is game day, so there’s not this huge level of intensity that they have to adjust to on game day.
"Actually, Cliff, I’d love to hear you tell me a little about this guy and how he was able to get the best out of his defensive linemen."
Avril said he believes Kocurek has made a big impact on the production of the 49ers' defensive line.
“You just said it, the intensity, the big dip he had in his mouth, but just the energy he brings day-in and day-out," Avril said. "He understands what pass-rushing looks like. He played D-line, as well. It’s just the energy and he knows a lot about pass rushing. I can honestly dedicate a lot of my moves and different things due to me having him my first three or four years in the NFL. So he’s got those guys on the right track. That’s for sure.”