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49ers return to early-season defensive dominance vs. Vikings as they get healthier

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San Francisco’s defense put the clamps on Kirk Cousins and the Vikings, pushing them into the NFC Championship game.

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

During the offseason, the San Francisco 49ers knew the problem they had to address via free agency and the draft: the pass rush. General manager John Lynch delivered with the additions of ex-Chief Dee Ford and former Ohio State defender Nick Bosa.

Those additions led to early-season dominance on defense, when the 49ers were on historic levels, limiting opposing offenses through their air and racked up huge sack totals. Through the first 11 games, San Francisco’s pass rush totaled 44 sacks and dominated the league in that statistic.

Since the game vs. the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers managed to bring down the opposing quarterback a total of five times — in five games. While some of it could be due to the quarterbacks they faced, injuries to Dee Ford, Jaquiski Tartt, and Kwon Alexander carried a ripple effect to the 49ers’ sack numbers.

Well, the pass-rushing drought ended on Saturday vs. Vikings. If the 49ers were going to have success against Minnesota’s run-based offense, they needed to limit the Vikings’ rushing attack on early downs and then bring pressure to quarterback Kirk Cousins on third down.

That’s exactly what Robert Saleh’s unit did in their playoff debut. They limited running back Dalvin Cook and Co. to 21 rushing yards total (yes, Cook and Co., not just Cook) and then sacked Kirk Cousins six times.

It had been a loooong drought — since October 27, but the 49ers were finally able to tally six sacks against an opponent. The return of Dee Ford this week freed up the other defensive lineman to rush the passer. The double teams and chips were no longer possible when there are four dominant defensive linemen rushing the passer. That allowed San Francisco’s defensive line to feast on the Vikings’ front line.

While Ford only put up one sack and two quarterback hits in his limited snaps, the effect of his presence on the field was seen in the others’ play. 49ers’ rookie defender Nick Bosa reaped the benefits of Ford’s return, finishing the game with six tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits and two tackles for loss.

The 49ers’ rookie finished the game with a team-high eight pressures and had a pressure rate of 30 percent during Saturday’s game. This was the seventh game this season that Bosa had at least five pressures — which is tied for the league lead.

The 49ers’ defense limited the Kevin Stefanski’s offense to seven first downs throughout the game, a mark that only six other teams have done since 1970. The last time someone held an opponent to seven first downs was 2007.

Since 1970, only 13 times in a playoff game has an offense run at least 45 plays and gained less than 147 yards — San Francisco’s defense joined that elite club this afternoon.

Robert Saleh’s unit was limping to the finish line in the last quarter of the season, ridden with injuries at different levels. With the win in Seattle and the BYE week, the 49ers’ defense was able to benefit the most, getting back three starters.

In their healthiest appearance on defense since Halloween, the 49ers steamrolled through the Vikings’ offense, by limiting Cook’s effectiveness in the running game and then pressuring Cousins into mistake-filled football.

If this unit can stay healthy — I don’t see how any opposing offense will have success. It’s a defense that can relentlessly rush the passer, cover opposing receivers and tackle immediately after the catch.