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Breaking down the 49ers’ defensive line success against the Vikings

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Let’s evaluate the performance of DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead from Sunday’s opener.

San Francisco 49ers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Before the San Francisco 49ers took the field on Sunday, if a fortune teller told me that San Francisco would hold the Minnesota Vikings to 17 offensive points, hold quarterback Kirk Cousins to 244 passing yards, and rack up three sacks, I would have thought that Kyle Shanahan’s squad comes out of the weekend 1-0.

Instead, dropped passes, ill-timed interceptions, and missed opportunities were key factors in an opening week loss in Minnesota. While moral victories don’t appear in the standings on Monday morning, they certainly can encourage a young team. The defensive line’s performance on Sunday should be one of the bright spots that encourage the 49ers’ defensive coaching staff heading into Week 2.

Let’s take a look at what former first-rounders DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Solomon Thomas were able to accomplish in Minnesota.

Per Pro Football Focus, Armstead graded out the highest among the three, finishing with a 72.7, after playing in 59 of the 71 snaps. Armstead played solid run defense, but was less effective as a pass rusher. Buckner finished a close second, at 70.1, but graded relatively the same in run defense and pass rush. Thomas ranked among the worst on defense, with a 48.5 overall grade.

Let’s flip over to the film, to see what made Armstead and Buckner successful.

In the second play of the game, the Vikings hand off the ball to running back Dalvin Cook, who’s immediately met by lineman Solomon Thomas and Buckner for a loss of two yards. The 49ers’ studs are lined up on the right side, immediately release from their blocks and stop Cook in his tracks.

Later on the same drive, Buckner gets his first sack of the season, easily blowing by the Vikings’ left guard and taking down Cousins. This was one of the quickest sacks during opening weekend, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

In this next clip, Buckner’s high motor is on full display. The ex-Oregon lineman rushes up the field, stops, runs back to make the tackle on Cook for a six-yard loss.

Defensive Player of the Year, anyone? In the first game of the season, Buckner’s making his case as one of the best defenders across the NFL. In this play, he’s able to disengage from the Vikings’ lineman and chase down Cousins for a nine-yard loss on the play.

Now, Buckner and fellow lineman Ronald Blair III team up for a sack, chasing Cousins out of the pocket and bringing him down immediately. The 49ers’ defenders were effective in making Cousins antsy in the pocket and then bringing him down before he could take off and run.

Now in the red zone, Buckner and Armstead line up on the right side of the defense and stuff Cook for only a two-yard gain. While Buckner is still being held by the Vikings’ offensive lineman, he’s able to hold onto Cook until the rest of the troops arrive.

Here is Armstead’s most impressive play of Sunday afternoon, being blocked by Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph and bringing down Cook for a one-yard loss on the play. Armstead routinely displayed this strength in the preseason, but it hasn’t translated well into the regular season — until now.

The former Oregon first-round pick is able to disengage from the Vikings’ offensive lineman and take down Cook for a one-yard loss on the play. This is what 49ers’ fans expect more of from Armstead moving forward this season.

Unfortunately, this is the play that most 49ers’ fans are going to remember from Thomas. While it didn’t cost the 49ers the game, it was a mental error that should not have happened. Everyone in the stadium and at home knew Cousins was not snapping the ball, yet Thomas (and Armstead) fell for the hard count.

The 49ers’ brain trust invested three first-round picks into the defensive line, hoping for returns such as Sunday’s performance. While the Vikings’ offensive line was beat up and in-experienced, it was a strong outing from Buckner and Armstead in particular. Thomas had his problems, but if the 49ers’ run defense and pass rush is to find any success in 2018, it’s going to have be catalyzed from those three players.