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Talking points: Shanahan, Saleh and Mullens on 49ers vs. Bears

Breaking down comments from Kyle Shanahan, Robert Saleh and Nick Mullens as the 49ers prepare for their Week 16 matchup against the Bears at Levi’s Stadium.

The San Francisco 49ers have two games left for the 2018 season and Sunday is the team’s finale at Levi’s Stadium. Riding a two-game win streak, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers conclude their three-game series at home with the playoff-bound Chicago Bears, hoping to once again play spoiler with postseason implications.

Shanahan, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and quarterback Nick Mullens spoke with the media this week before the 49ers’ Week 16 matchup against the Bears. Here’s some of their notable talking points:

Facing the best

In their last two games against the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers have faced the 4th- and 19th-ranked defenses in DVOA, respectively. On Sunday, they’ll face the league’s best led by former 49ers and current Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Shanahan spoke on what challenges Chicago’s top-ranked defense offered the offense:

“I look at it as a test for everyone because I do think this is without a doubt the best defense we’ve played this year. It’s one of the better defenses I’ve seen. They have, at every spot, whether it’s linebacker, whether it’s pass rusher, whether it’s secondary, they have some very elite players. I think they have a scheme and a coordinator that is as good as there is.”

Quarterback Nick Mullens will face his toughest test of the season in the seventh start of his career. The former third-stringer has impressed so far, completing 64.5% of his passes for 1,754 yards, 10 touchdowns, six interceptions and a quarterback rating of 96. He didn’t turn the ball over in Sunday’s win over the Seahawks, a performance Shanahan is hopes to replicate against the league’s best defense at forcing turnovers:

“We have to be very efficient because when there aren’t a lot of holes in a defense, that’s where you start to press a little bit and you force something and you get turnovers. That’s why they’ve done such a good job this year of turnovers. When they get turnovers, that’s when their offense scores points.”

Fighting through adversity

The 49ers’ new regime of Shanahan and general manager John Lynch began their tenure with a record of nine wins and 21 losses. In addition to the lack of success on the field, they’ve endured a barrage of injuries and unfortunate circumstances, making it difficult to focus on the few things that have gone right. Among those is Shanahan’s ability leading players and keeping them focused on the task at hand. Shanahan was asked about the challenges of improving despite being out of the playoff hunt:

“It is a big challenge. Anywhere around the league it’s tough. I think our guys have been able to do it all year. I think it’s a complete credit to them. I think it’s a credit to our organization too. We’ve been through a lot of adversity this year and sometimes when you do that, a lot of people splinter and the pressure gets too big and people point the finger and everyone goes into survival mode. Whether it’s players, whether it’s coaches, whether it’s your personnel building, ownership, whatever it is.”

Shanahan’s coaching ability has been apparent over the past two weeks. The 49ers’ second-year head coach managed to lead a one-win team to consecutive wins over two teams with playoff hopes in the Broncos and Seahawks. Shanahan has put on an impressive display of offensive acumen in the process, turning former third-string and practice squad quarterback Nick Mullens into a genuine starter. With young, inexperienced players making an impact, Shanahan highlighted the need to stay focused the long-term goals:

“I think our guys have stayed pretty level-headed throughout the year and just tried to always go back to work no matter how disappointed we are. When you do that, guys work harder because they feel like you’re still working for something. It wasn’t just this year, it’s for, ‘Hey, we’re still trying to build this and we’re still trying to make this place a winner.’ I think we’ve stayed that way and I think our players feel it too and they want to be a part of it.”

Buckner gains a half-step

No player delivered more quarterback hits in 2017 than Buckner, per Pro Football Focus. Despite consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks, the 49ers’ star defender managed a mere three sacks last season. “Almost” was the story of Buckner’s sophomore season. But in 2018, Buckner found that “extra half-a-step,” as Saleh puts it, totaling 11 sacks on the season. The 49ers’ defensive coordinator spoke on Buckner’s improved ability to get after the quarterback:

“Buck, we talked about it last year, Buck had so many pressures on the quarterback and so many QB knockdowns. But, the number of sacks wasn’t matching up. We talked about him needing to find that extra half-a-step. That was what he was missing. He’s done a really good job working on it this offseason and just working on his ability to close on quarterbacks once he wins his one-on-one, disengaging and getting off blockers. He’s really taken it to heart and he’s found that step. He’s still got a couple more, and he’s left a couple out there, too. He’ll even tell you that. He could very easily be around 15 if everything went his way.”

What will be some of his challenges to get to Chicago Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky?

“They do a really good job protecting the quarterback. They get the ball out quick. Again, it comes down to winning your one-on-ones. Trubisky is very good. He’s like a young [Seattle Seahawks QB] Russell Wilson back when Russell first came out, where he just runs and he’s got tremendous speed. I mean, Russell still runs. It’s another challenge to try to make sure that we’re great with rush lane discipline and keeping him in the pocket so we can get him down if the coverage can hold up.”

Solomon Thomas’ momentum

The third-overall pick in 2017 may be finding his niche among a crowded 49ers defensive front. General manager John Lynch’s oft-criticized first selection on the job has struggled to establish himself as the impact player you would expect from a Top-5 pick in the NFL Draft. Thomas earned Saleh’s praise after a solid performance against the Seahawks on Sunday:

“I thought he did a good job. I don’t want to say he’s starting to figure it out, it’s just the natural progression. He’s been getting some good amount of reps and trying to find his way through and try to find his niche. I think he’s been doing a good job. Sunday’s game, he made some impact plays that didn’t land on the stat sheet, but he had a presence.”

Thomas’ performance against the Seahawks may be better summarized by PFF’s analysis than the box score. Thomas earned an overall grade of 73.8 on Sunday, the second-highest grade on the 49ers’ defense. He pressured Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson twice, but couldn’t finish with the sack. Saleh talked about what Thomas and the coaching staff around working to help Thomas finish plays:

“He’s left a couple sacks out there. Over the past three or four games, he’s had some presence out there that’s not going to show up on the stat sheet. But, he is moving in the right direction. It’s the same thing. You’ve got to keep coaching him. He’s got to keep seeing different looks, different linemen, different sets. He’ll get better. He’ll continue to get better as he continues to get reps.”

The Mullens-Pettis connection

Mullens’ ascension has gone hand-in-hand with the success of rookie receiver Dante Pettis. The pair have established a connection that’s propelled Pettis to become the 49ers’ top wideout over the past six weeks. Since Week 10 against the Giants, Mullens and Pettis have accounted for 32 targets, 21 catches, 254 yards and four touchdowns. The 49ers’ quarterback was asked what he’s seen from his “go-to guy” over the course of Mullens’ six starts:

“I think he just feels comfortable out there. He’s playing. He’s natural. He’s not thinking about it. He’s just running the routes, making plays, doing what we love to see him do. We knew since he got here that he had a lot of talent. He has a lot of talent. He’s going to do a great job of separating and getting open for us. He’s done a great job of that. He’s becoming natural with it I guess you could say, just relaxed, playing well. We’re pumped up for him. It’s awesome.”