The San Francisco 49ers defense struggled with consistency early in the season, but Eric Mangini's unit might finally be finding its footing. The 49ers are coming off a strong performance against the Atlanta Falcons, in which they held Devonta Freeman to 12 yards rushing. This followed back-to-back performances in which Todd Gurley averaged over six yards per carry, and Marshawn Lynch averaged 4.5 yards per carry. In those performances, tackling was a big problem, with both backs getting a lot of yards after initial contact.
Earlier this week, NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell made a couple appearances on KNBR. He focused on Blaine Gabbert and the 49ers offense, but he also answered some questions about the defense. The 49ers shut down Freeman, and generally held down the Falcons passing attack. Matt Ryan and company got a lot of yards, but for the most part it was not huge chunk plays.
Looking through the rest of the schedule, the 49ers defense has a few intriguing challenges. The Seahawks ground game will be a stiff test once again. The 49ers then host Arizona in a big test for the pass defense. Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett provide tough challenges in Chicago. The 49ers then travel to Cleveland before heading home to face Cincinnati. The Bengals offensive attack is doing big things this season, and Andy Dalton might be getting over the hump. The 49ers wrap up at Detroit and vs. the Rams. The Lions passing attack has been inconsistent, while the Rams will be back with more Todd Gurley.
Cosell spoke with KNBR on Monday and Wednesday. The first answer is from Monday, while the rest is from Wednesday (thus the duplication in answers). You can listen to the podcasts here.
On limiting Devonta Freeman:
Well, first of all, their base run defense this year has been very, very good. It's been lost in the season, but their base run defense has been very, very good all season long for the most part. That just continued yesterday. Now the thing that stood out yesterday was they went back to blitzing far more than they had in previous works. And they blitzed a high percentage, which was very interesting given who they lined up at corner. And combined with the blitzing, they didn't really do anything special for Julio Jones. Now, he put up good numbers, but for the most part, there were no real big explosive plays. There was the one explosive play to Julio, in which it was cover 2, and the safety split, and it was NaVorro Bowman, I believe, who was running down the seam. And actually was doing a really good job until he kind of got lost at the end. But that was really the only big, explosive pass play. So, they were more aggressive with blitz, and they mixed up man and zone, and they just did a really good job. And they had some different front looks with different guys standing up in two-point stances, what we call chokers. And it just makes it a little more difficult for the offense.
On 49ers defense:
Well, I'll tell you, I think their run defense, particularly out of their base 3-4, which they were in quite a bit because the Falcons line up with a fullback more than any team in the league. I think their run defense out of their base 3-4 has been very good all season. It's been lost in all the other issues. Also, the other thing that Eric Mangini did in this game that he has not done in recent weeks was much higher percentage blitz. Which was very interesting he chose this game to do it, but obviously there's a reason for that. And I think the one thing that stood out to me, other than the Julio Jones 53-yard play which came against a cover 2, and Bowman actually did a good job until very late, they did not really have explosive pass plays. They did not really get chunks of yards in the pass game. So the 49ers defense, I thought, played extremely well.
On NaVorro Bowman performance:
Best game, best game probably since Week 1. I thought he looked much, much quicker, and maybe it's the knee is coming around. After a gruesome injury, we know that that takes times. Because there was a stretch of games, as I told you guys, where he looked a little slow, and I was wondering if hey, he's not gonna get it back. But I thought in this game, it just jumped off the film, he looked much, much quicker.