Kris Kocurek

49ers' Nick Bosa feels fortunate for landing with playoff-ready team

49ers' Nick Bosa feels fortunate for landing with playoff-ready team

SANTA CLARA -- Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa might not be an NFL talent evaluator, but he knew whichever player was selected No. 2 overall was going into an ideal situation with the 49ers.

The 49ers had a lot of talent returning, including quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who played just three games before sustaining a torn ACL in 2018. The 49ers slid to a 4-12 record and were set to pick behind only the two-win Arizona Cardinals.

Moreover, the 49ers had already made significant gains in the offseason with the acquisition of edge rusher Dee Ford in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs by the time the NFL draft rolled around.

“Just being a football fan last year, knowing what kind of players they had on the roster,” said Bosa, who was named NFL Rookie of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America this week. “I didn't know to this extent how good the depth was and stuff like that, but I just knew that of the top teams picking, this was definitely the most playoff-ready team.”

Bosa and Ford did not line up together as much as either player would have liked during the regular season. But that makes little difference now.

Ford missed all but four snaps in the final six games of the regular season with a hamstring injury. He was back on the field in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, and Bosa could feel the benefits.

“Just having Dee is a mismatch for just about anybody, which opens up things for the other guys and everybody reaps the benefit,” Bosa said.

Bosa registered two sacks and Ford had a sack of his own in the 49ers’ 27-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday. The 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship Game on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers at Levi’s Stadium.

Ford brings a unique ability to threaten offensive linemen off the snap of the ball with his quickness. And that kind of ability to get around the edge is something that helps everyone on the 49ers’ defensive line, including defensive tackles DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.

“Just speed. It makes the O-Line think,” Bosa said. “They usually know something's up and then we can catch them off guard with some other things. Then, obviously the other side of the line has to deal with Buck and Armstead.”

The key to the 49ers’ pass rush against the Vikings, in many ways, was a direct result of the team’s ability to handle running back Dalvin Cook on the early downs. That will be an equally important part of dealing with the Packers’ offense on Sunday.

The key to defending the passing attack of Aaron Rodgers will be to keep running back Aaron Jones in check. Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek always makes stopping the run his top priority.

“The same thing needs to happen for us to win,” Bosa said. “It usually revolves around stopping the run, setting edges, stuff like that. Just being physical is probably his biggest message every week.”

[RELATEDFord does walk-through but is held out of 49ers practice]

General manager John Lynch sought out to build a dominant defensive line after inheriting a team that included first-round picks Armstead and Buckner.

The 49ers drafted Solomon Thomas at No. 3 overall in 2017. Ford, a 2014 first-round pick of the Chiefs, was added in a trade for a second-round pick. And Bosa gave the 49ers a fifth first-round selection along the defensive line.

Each of those players got into the sack column against the Vikings. And they are expecting more to come in the postseason.

“From the beginning of the year, we knew there was a lot invested in the room and if the team wanted to go where we wanted to go, we had to be a part of it,” Bosa said. “And, obviously, it's not all up to us because we've had bad games and everybody else has picked up the slack for us. We just need to finish this year out strong.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday)

Also tune in 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.

How 49ers' D-line has grown in eyes of returning veteran Earl Mitchell

How 49ers' D-line has grown in eyes of returning veteran Earl Mitchell

SANTA CLARA -- It had been more than a year since veteran defensive tackle Earl Mitchell played for the 49ers.

It did not take him long after re-signing with the club after the conclusion of the regular season to notice a difference from the past two years.

“It was awesome just to see how much these guys have grown,” Mitchell said after playing 11 snaps in a backup role in the 49ers’ 27-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

Mitchell, 32, a 10-year NFL veteran, came out of retirement to add depth to the 49ers’ defensive line after not playing a down for any team during the regular season.

Now, the 49ers are moving on to the NFC Championship Game on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

Mitchell started 28 of the 30 games in which he appeared for the 49ers in 2017 and ’18. He played with Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, and he can clearly see how much the players he lined up alongside have come along in their careers.

“It’s a totally different team than what I witnessed down the line from Solomon, Buckner, Armstead,” Mitchell said. “They’re playing fast and free and they’re comfortable and they know themselves. It’s really just a great atmosphere.”

Mitchell was particularly impressed with a sequence he saw from Thomas early in the fourth quarter.

“That screen play that Solomon made that play on, he called it out before he even made that play,” Mitchell said. “I can’t tell you how proud of him I was, just as a vet to see these guys grow and actually be able to see something and capitalize on it is just growth.

“We knew what they were going to do, but literally right before the play started, Solomon called it. He gave me the word. ‘This is going to be a screen. Be prepared.’ We were both were on top of it.”

Thomas lined up at right defensive tackle with Mitchell to his left. As soon as Vikings running back Dalvin Cook started to leave the backfield, Thomas changed course to track him. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw also knew what was coming, and he dropped Cook behind the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble with Thomas right there.

“Just the confidence, to be able to call out something and look me in the eye, like, ‘All right,’ rather than being apprehensive and being slow, and being able to play fast and trusting what you’re seeing,” Mitchell said.

Thomas had three tackles and a sack while playing 14 snaps.

[RELATED49ers' Nick Bosa named NFL Rookie of the Year by writers association]

Mitchell also credited 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and first-year defensive line coach Kris Kocurek for having the defense properly prepared for the Vikings. Mitchell said he remembers communication on the sideline being an issue the past two seasons. But he was impressed with the efficiency of making corrections between defensive series Saturday.

“They came out with their normal game plan,” Mitchell said of the Vikings. “I think we were just well-prepared. Coach Kocurek harped on them trying to run to our weak side on our defense, and we keyed on that pretty much and we stayed true to our keys and got after it. We knew what they were going to try to do and kudos to Saleh and everybody.”

The 49ers held Minnesota to just 147 total yards of offense, including just 21 yards rushing. Cook had 18 yards rushing on nine rushing attempts and just 8 yards on six receptions.

 

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday)

Also tune in 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 5:30 p.m.

How D-line coach Kris Kocurek has revitalized 49ers' pass defense

How D-line coach Kris Kocurek has revitalized 49ers' pass defense

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."

[RELATED: Jimmy G enthusiastic for first start vs. rival Seahawks]

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.”