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The letter of the day in San Francisco is ‘D’ for Deebo Samuel, DeMeco Ryans and a dominant defense. All three will continue to serve as the guiding force behind whatever success the 49ers experience this season. The design is simple but effective.
Ryan’s resume, in particular, received a significant boost with San Francisco’s 24-9 victory Monday over the rival Los Angeles Rams. But the defensive coordinator had help, which is a common theme this campaign.
Defensive end Nick Bosa made a prophetic statement in August when asked about unproven quarterback Trae Lance.
“I think he’s probably in the best position you could be in as a starting quarterback with a defense like ours and a good O-line and a bunch of weapons,” Bosa told reporters. “He’s got all the help he needs … I think if he doesn’t make any big mistakes, then we’ll be in good shape.”
The same things are now true for Jimmy Garoppolo.
Kyle Shanahan’s team is top-heavy since all NFC West teams are 2-2, although technically the Niners lead the division with a 2-0 record.
Unlike other teams, however, the quarterback is not the focus. The 49ers have an excellent defense. The offensive line could be better, but the scheme is tried and true. The skill position players, especially Samuel, make life easier all around.
Samuel’s ability to create after the catch borders on magical. The wizard with the shoulder pads invented 100 measures after arrest on his six receptions for 115 yards.
His 57-yard touchdown in the second quarter will go down as one of the best highlights of the season.
Deebo just ran through all the defense! @19problemz
📺: #LARvsSF on ESPN
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So much that I love about this game. First, he quickly became available on 3rd and 3. Garoppolo threw up with cornerback Derion Kendrick driving the ball, and Samuel plucked it out of the air. If the work had ended there, Samuel would have done his job very well. But he is special and transforms into a run when the ball is in his hands. He forced three missed tackles on his way to the end zone.
During the final frame, Samuel ran a simple wide receiver screen on 3rd-and-13 and turned it into a 29-yard gain.
Sports Illustrated @Sinow
DEEBO IS INEVITABLE!!! 😤 #FTTB
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Garoppolo threw two yards through the air on those plays, which resulted in 86 yards.
Garoppolo doesn’t need to push the ball down the field for San Francisco’s offense to create big plays, especially when the unit’s $71.6 million player is involved.
Samuel’s four games of 50 or more yards since the start of the 2021 campaign are more than 30 of any major league offense during that span, according to CBS Sports’ Doug Clawson. In fact, the 26-year-old’s 699 receiving yards are the most in the NFL since the start of the ’19 season, with no other player topping 500, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Get the ball in Samuel’s hands and let him go to work.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers defense goes to work on every play and tends to get the ball in their hands at some point. San Francisco forced two turnovers in the fourth quarter, including a game-tying, 52-yard pick-six by safety Talanoa Hufanga.
Hufanga is the unit’s newest difference maker. The second baseman sniffed out the Rams’ scheme based on the receivers’ wide releases and turned it into a scoring opportunity.
“You can smell a rat when it comes to these things,” Hufanga he told reporters.
It is clear how the unit flies in football. It’s fast, smart and natural. Hufanga’s nose for the ball creates a completely different dynamic in the team.
“What’s great is here’s a guy who seems to move faster than everybody,” Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott said. Murph and Mac (via San Jose Mercury NewsJerry McDonald). “And what I mean by that is his anticipation of grasping the moment.”
As McDonald noted, Hufanga’s hair, Polynesian heritage and USC ties lead to comparisons to Troy Polamalu. However, the comparison must run deeper because the two are actively working together to improve the young defensive back’s game.
San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga celebrates after a hit against the Los Angeles Rams. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
“He criticizes everything and is a tough critic,” Hufanga said. “He sees the game from a different angle and is never really satisfied with my performances. Training with him is very different. A lot of it has to do with your mind. It’s a different cat, for sure. He not only understands the game, but also what life is about.”
On the second line, Fred Warner is one of, if not The, the best center back in the game. How many other linebackers do you see carrying and covering Cooper Kupp on the sideline? Warner is different.
“A true three-down lineman, can be the quarterback of a complicated defense, can blitz, great in coverage, great awareness,” one NFL personnel evaluator told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler this summer. “It’s the safest bet.”
Meanwhile, Dre Greenlaw quietly led the 49ers on Monday with 15 tackles.
Up front, Bosa is a game-breaker. The descriptor is not just a platitude. As Pro Football Focus’ John Owning Notably, the site credited the two-time Pro Bowl honoree with 14 pressures against a makeshift Rams front five. He leads the NFL in total pressures through four games, according to ESPN’s Nick Wagoner.
The Rams had mismatches to exploit due to injuries up front and the 49ers did just that. Bosa finished with two sacks. The number doesn’t take into account how often he was a hair’s breadth away from throwing Stafford again. He beat offensive tackles, made caps to take advantage of the weak offensive interior and just harassed Stafford all night.
Ryans brings this whole team together while elevating their overall game. Going into Monday’s game, San Francisco already claimed the league’s top defense.
Technically, the Rams moved the ball and managed 311 yards, including 14 receptions for 122 yards from Kupp. Even so, Los Angeles never seemed to really threaten San Francisco’s defense. The 49ers essentially implemented the Jordan rules knowing Kupp would get his, but not to let the all-world wide receiver beat them by himself.
The 38-year-old defensive lineman put together an excellent game plan with well-timed blitzes complemented by disciplined play along the second and third levels. San Francisco didn’t allow a single play of more than 18 yards. The running game averaged 3.2 yards per carry.
San Francisco has been good on defense for some time now. During the franchise’s ’19 run to Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers allowed 281.8 yards per contest. Now, it’s even better. Through four games, the unit is giving up 234.5 yards on average.
The difference lies in Ryans. First, he brings a more aggressive mindset than previous defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans. (Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
“I’ve always been confused with Saleh because I said I don’t think he’s ever lost a dollar in his life gambling because Saleh doesn’t want to gamble too much,” Shanahan told The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami in the summer of 2021. “I think DeMeco will do it a little longer. Sometimes there’s a little risk in it, but sometimes there’s some reward as well.”
A certain level of respect is also afforded Ryans by his current players, as their coach lasted 10 years in the league, made two Pro Bowls and even earned first team All-Pro once.
“He knows what it takes as a defensive player, he knows what it takes in the league,” cornerback Jason Verrett also said last year, according to Wagoner. “He’s done a hell of a job getting guys up front, it all starts up front and then ends up on the back end. So, so far it’s been fun to be out there with a guy who’s played in the majors and knows a lot about the ins and outs of football, so it was very close to us.”
San Francisco’s defense responds well to Ryans tutelage, which makes the team dangerous.
The saying “defense wins championships” may be a cliché, but it’s one way to win in this league. The 49ers will rarely be in any contest where they have an advantage at the game’s most important position. Instead, Shanahan and Co. can rely on three Ds—Deebo, Demeco, and defense—to lead the way.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.