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The 49ers’ dormant pass rush will need to wake up for a Super Bowl run

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Heading into Saturday, the 49ers’ pass rush has to rise back to early-season dominance for San Francisco to be able to make a Super Bowl run.

San Francisco 49ers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

From Weeks 1-12, the 49ers’ defense was able to sack the opposing quarterback at least four times in six different games. Since Week 13, San Francisco’s pass rush has combined for five sacks total.

Through the first 11 games of the season, Robert Saleh’s defense did not have a single game with zero sacks. Yet in the final five games, there were two different matchups where the 49ers’ defense couldn’t bring the opposing quarterback down to the ground.

For Kyle Shanahan’s squad to be able to attain their ultimate goal — hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Miami — he will need his pass rush to step up in the next three games. It dates back to the offseason, where the 49ers realized what the root cause of their problems was on defense and addressed it in free agency and the draft.

General manager John Lynch sent a future second-round pick to Kansas City to trade for pass rusher Dee Ford, followed by handing him a large contract that secured Ford with the 49ers for the foreseeable future. Just a month later, Lynch took his most valuable draft asset and landed the former Ohio State defensive lineman Nick Bosa to rush the passer from the opposite side.

With those two moves, the 49ers’ pass rush was now off to the races. Early in the season, it certainly looked like the moves was paying dividends, because the defensive line was in the opposing quarterback’s lap on nearly every snap. They also led the NFL in sack rate midway through the season but fell to third at the end of the season after not being able to accumulate sacks at the same rate.

Although they are the healthiest they have been since early in the season, the defensive line depth still won’t be the same without D.J. Jones or Ronald Blair III. Per Pro Football Focus, those were two players that accounted for 19 pressured and five sacks combined, and they will be watching the playoffs from the sidelines.

Pass rusher Dee Ford — who is still questionable for Saturday’s contest — has only played four snaps since Week 11. /He’s been hampered by a hamstring injury, and his 25 pressures are being severely missed. Per NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund, the 49ers have a 36.3 percent pressure rate with Ford in the lineup and a 22.7 percent pressure rate without him.

Without the true threat of a rusher on one side of the field, opposing offenses can double team Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, or DeForest Bucker, making their lives harder.

The potential remaining quarterbacks that the 49ers could face in the NFC are Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, or Aaron Rodgers. San Francisco’s defensive line was able to generate 11 sacks in three games against Wilson and Rodgers, but have not faced Cousins yet this season.

In this weekend’s matchup vs. Vikings, the 49ers’ pass rush will have to impose his will against Cousins and disrupt the timing of Minnesota’s passing game. Ahead of the Saints-Vikings’ matchup, Saints’ defender Cam Jordan repeatedly said that Cousins would get “skittish” if the defense landed hits on him.

The evidence seems to support that theory as well. The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin mapped out Cousins’ EPA (Effective Points Added) per play to track his performances from game-to-game.

Cousins’ worst games this year were against the Packers and Bears. Against the Bears, the Vikings’ signal-caller was sacked six times, and in the Week 16 matchup against the Packers, Cousins was brought down five times.

The common denominator in these bad performances is the fact that Cousins consistently gets hit and then gets skittish in the pocket and starts to make unforced errors.

Looking ahead — assuming the 49ers win on Saturday, they would be facing either Green Bay or Seattle, two teams known for their porous pass-blocking offensive lines. Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers has become less mobile, and hence the 49ers were able to sack him five times in their earlier meeting this season. Seahawks’ Russell Wilson is extremely evasive, but San Francisco is averaging three sacks in their two matchups.

San Francisco’s front office has heavily invested into their defensive line, and the season’s biggest moments, they will be looking for that expensive pass rush to bring the opposing quarterback down to Levi’s grass. Will they wake up starting Saturday?