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99 days until kickoff: What made Deforest Buckner a star in 2018

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Oakland Raiders v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In precisely 99 days, the San Francisco 49ers will travel to Tampa Bay to face new head coach Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers. When I see 99, I think Deforest Buckner. The last time the two teams met each other, Buckner had four tackles—each resulting in a stop or a sack. Tampa Bay is returning the same offensive line that was 31st in adjusted line yards last year, 15th in adjusted sack rate, and 18th in pressure rate. You may have heard, but the Niners are not returned the same starters along the defensive line.

Don’t fact check me on this, but I’m pretty sure Deforest is Hawaiian for “destroy.” Even if you just watched Buckner off-hand last season, you were more than likely impressed. If someone were to ask “how can Buckner get better in 2019?”, you have to really nitpick when you take into account everything he was asked to do last year.

By the numbers

852: That’s the number of snaps Buckner played in 2018. Only four interior defensive linemen were on the field more than Buckner. His dependability might have been the most eye-popping part of Buckner’s season. Not just playing at a high level, but doing so on every snap, when teams are doing everything they can to take you away. That’s big-time.

13: As much as I love quarterback hits, and pressures to a lesser extent, a sack remains king. Why? Because it eliminates any positive outcome for the offense. It’s simple. Only two interior linemen had more sacks than Buckner in 2018.

37: The number of stops Buckner had in 2018. Only two interior linemen had more stops last year. That number speaks to how dominant Buckner was—which we’ll get to shortly, but Buckner’s production was sensational.

Two plays against Tampa

Teams will not be able to block Buckner like they did last year. They didn’t do a good job, to begin with. The first two plays of the game Tampa Bay sent a double-team at Buckner. If 99 is going to see that type of attention Week 1, Jameis Winston might want to look into insurance now.

With some of the premier players, like Buckner, Chris Jones, that defensive tackle on the Los Angeles Rams, and Fletcher Cox, most of their best plays can’t be found in the stat sheet. Buckner had a sack against the Bucs, but that was far from his most productive play.

I’d be interested in what Buckner’s win percentage was when he was 1-on-1 last year. My guess is Buckner would be in the top five. Check this play out below:

Seeing Buckner rag-doll lineman will never get old. Ever.

On the ensuing play Buckner was rewarded with his hustle in the stat sheet by tagging Winston out of bounds for a gain of one. Football tends to balance itself out like that.

Doing his job

One thing that stands out about Buckner is that he’s always doing his job. Whether he’s asked on that snap to win 1-on-1, or take on a double team. The result below doesn’t happen unless Buckner is able to complete his job by taking on the double team.

On the surface, it looks like Buckner is showing off his Samoan strength. While that’s true, Buckner could take the easy route here and try to split the double team. Instead, he picks “half a man” and attacks the right guard. By doing this, it ensures the guard cannot climb to the second level and block Elijah Lee.

That’s a selfless play. The play doesn’t happen if Buckner tries to be a hero. Buckner has the tools to be an All-Pro, but it’s his effort, selflessness, and awareness that make him a star.