SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The intensity is unmistakable live. It’s been audible in the banter and taunting yells. Palpable in the pace, in their swarming presence. It’s been an aggressive vibe, one percolating enough to fuel the tenor of camp.
The source is incredibly clear — from the defensive side of the ball. It’s like those players sense something brewing.
“Yeah, everybody’s on edge,” linebacker Dre Greenlaw said. “Because everybody knows how great we could be. And, I mean, it’s just you can feel it throughout the whole defense and throughout the whole team.”
Perhaps it’s the unfinished business, the plays left behind at SoFi Stadium six months ago, especially the dropped gimmie interception by Jaquiski Tartt, a defensive lapse that changed the tide of the game. Perhaps it’s how they finished last season, surviving early struggles to close with the kind of dominance they remember. Maybe it’s the freshness of the roster changes, the infusion of talent recalibrating the potential. Or just how they’re wired, a collection of players endowed with a tangible hunger. It could be a concoction featuring all of the above.
Whatever the case, this 49ers defense has been on 10 from the first snap of camp. Each day of impressiveness, every individual display of unique talent, only seemed to feed their swagger. They believe they’re the best in the league. The prospect seems to be energizing them into obvious chemistry, pressuring them into raising their level.
The offense is feeling it, and smartly using it.
“We go against the best defensively in the league every day,” said offensive tackle Trent Williams, who is entering his 12th season and knows exactly what the heat from a great defense feels like. He later added, “From top to bottom, that defense is loaded. It’s not a weakness in that defense, on that roster. … They carried us to the NFC Championship (Game) last year. So that’s the same defense, just got a little better.”
The 49ers’ defense finished third in total yards allowed (5,270) and fourth in yards per offensive play (5.2). It tied for the ninth-fewest points allowed in the league. But part of the reason for the confidence is how that unit turned up last season. After giving up 31 points and 437 yards in a loss to Arizona in Week 9, San Francisco’s fifth loss in six games, the defense shut down the Rams the following week and started the process of reclaiming its identity.
Over the last 12 games, including the playoffs, the 49ers held eight opponents to 20 points or fewer. Nine if you count the Week 14 win at Cincinnati, when the Bengals had 20 at the end of regulation. San Francisco rode the defense to the NFC title game, and the 49ers had the Rams’ potent offense under control for three quarters.
Now, the 49ers’ defense is convinced it’s better this year. On paper, they have depth unmatched by previous years when they were top-heavy. They’ve gotten stronger in some areas, and where they lost some elite talent, they have a committee to try to fill the void.
This defense could be the best one yet, even better than the 2019 unit that anchored a Super Bowl run. They know it. That much is clear.
And if they know that, the defense also knows a Super Bowl is on the table, and getting there is on them, and they are almost literally salivating at the challenge. They’re calling themselves the best defense in the league.
Optimism is always a bull market in training camp. Still, it’s hard not to believe them. They feel loaded.
The heartbeat of DeMeco Ryans’ unit is the linebacker corps. Greenlaw, Fred Warner and Azeez Al-Shaair, with their combination of speed and toughness, might be the best trio in the league (though the Buccaneers’ crew for sure has something to say about it). And don’t forget about Oren Burks and possibly Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, giving this unit some back-end promise — which it needs with its injury history.
“A lot of what we do,” Al-Shaair said, “is running sideline to sideline in the pass game.”
Their base defense, with three linebackers, gives them the versatility to cover the entire field and be stout in the run game. If Warner or Greenlaw is out, Al-Shaair is more than capable of filling in.
Their collective success in some ways rests on the shoulders of Warner. He followed his All-Pro season from 2020 with less-than-excellent play for significant portions of last season before finishing strong. He’s not only the leader of the unit, and clearly its voice, but his productivity is central to what makes the 49ers’ defense great. They need Warner the sure tackler. They need Warner’s mutant instincts and cerebral command. They need clutch Warner.
The 49ers’ mike linebacker has been the loudest of camp. Warner is leading the charge of a defense that’s feeling itself. But the talking isn’t just poking and prodding the offense. One of the signs of their potential is their connectivity.
This thing they sense, that they’re onto something defensively, seems to be enhancing engagement.
“I think everybody’s been doing a good job communicating,” Greenlaw said. “We got a lot of veterans on defense. So we understand what’s expected of us and what our coach wants us to do so. And that all starts with communication.”
Samson Ebukam is loving the vibe. He explained how the 49ers’ style of play and the cohorts in the trenches with him are setting him up for a big year.
He closed last year with a force. ESPN’s stats have him for 3.5 sacks and four stuffs over his last five games. Then he added two more sacks in the postseason. So he’s coming into 2022 with some momentum. He attributed his jump in production to how the 49ers coach up pass rushers. The 49ers ended his days at outside linebacker and put him back at defensive end, where he played in college. With a hand in the ground, and an edict to just get upfield and to the quarterback, Ebukam believes he’s best positioned to turn up.
“If I was here as a rookie,” he said. “It’d be a different story.”
“I wouldn’t be sitting here at 4.5 sacks,” he said. “I’d be gone.”
Ebukam is part of the defensive line’s greatest strength: the wave of players it can throw out there. Well, technically, its greatest strength is Nick Bosa, who simply cannot be blocked by one lineman.
If the linebackers are the heartbeat of the defense, then the defensive line is the hands. Or, more to the point, the fists. This unit deals the biggest blow. This unit is where the best player on the defense exists. This unit is their greatest rebuttal to the most important position in football. Get to the quarterback, get to the Super Bowl.
The depth of the defensive line, and the ability to capitalize on the attention Bosa draws, is the 49ers’ version of a haymaker. They’ve lost Maurice Hurst for the season and Arik Armstead, who was productive at defensive tackle, is currently on the shelf. But the recent pattern has shown the 49ers can plug in players off the waiver wire and get production.
Now they have returning guys who are familiar with the scheme and their role in Kerry Hyder Jr., Kevin Givens, Charles Omenihu and Jordan Willis. Plus they have two wild cards in third-year tackle Javon Kinlaw and rookie end Drake Jackson, two incredible physical athletes who could grow into something special under defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.
The 2019 defensive line was a monster. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the 49ers boasted a four-man crew of Bosa, Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford.
The 49ers have been trying to fill the void left by Buckner’s departure. They also lost D.J. Jones, who started 42 games the last three years and kept getting better. But a healthy Armstead is part one to the answer. He was highly productive last season after shifting almost exclusively to tackle.
“Arik was the key for us last year when we moved him inside,” Ryans said. “He really took our defense to the next level and we were able to really play better down the stretch because of his move inside. So having a guy like Arik, who’s done it at a high level on the outside but who’s unselfishly moved inside and still able to perform at a high level, it does help the defense in a major way. His versatility has been great for us.”
With him and Bosa as stalwarts, the question is whether they can get enough production elsewhere. As far as pass rush, Ebukam was a force down the stretch of the season on the end opposite Bosa. Can they stop the run? That’s where the loss of Buckner and Jones are especially felt. But if they get anything from Kinlaw, they have the makings to be a really good defensive front. Hyder and new addition Hassan Ridgeway could give the 49ers enough by committee to be solid up the middle. They have the bodies to stay fresh, rotating their array of specialists. The rest is on the linebackers.
At the tip of the spear is Bosa, who had 15.5 sacks in 2021, his first year back from an ACL tear. Now he’s had a full offseason on a healthy knee and another season of working against double and triple-teams under his belt. Bosa is an early favorite for 2022 defensive MVP honors. A monster season by him sets up this 49ers defense to be a bully. And a week ago, Jimmie Ward, ever so matter-of-factly, said Bosa was having the best camp: “Bosa‘s gon’ be Bosa.”
Bosa and the defensive line figure to have some new help this year. The 49ers’ secondary has never looked more promising. Think of what a regular half a second more would do for Bosa and that 49ers defensive line.
Charvarius Ward is looking like a game-changer after signing a three-year, $42 million deal this offseason. His corner skills give the 49ers a setup similar to when they had Richard Sherman. But Ward is 26 years old and entering his prime, whereas Sherman came to the 49ers on the back end of his. Presuming the muscle strain that has Ward out won’t hamper him in the regular season, the 49ers have their No. 1 corner spot filled.
“Just having him back there is definitely different,” Kyle Shanahan said of Ward, known to his peers as Mooney. “The way he moves. The way he plays. It’s been really good to have. He’s challenging our receivers.”
And Emmanuel Moseley, who eventually won the job next to Sherman in 2019, has looked as good as ever this camp (before his hamstring issues), playing as the No. 2 corner. Moseley spent much of last season as CB1 due to injuries. With Ward and Moseley, the 49ers have two corners who can press up and move around instead of being tied to zone.
The 49ers still have Jason Verrett, who when healthy in 2020 had his best year in a long time. Right now, their first-in-line nickelback is Darqueze Dennard, a veteran former first-round pick who is good enough to hop outside in spots. But even Samuel Womack, the rookie fifth-rounder, is making his presence felt. Eventually, if Verrett returns from last season’s Week 1 ACL tear, the 49ers could end up with Ward, Moseley and Verrett on the field together, with one of the latter in the slot. That’s tough.
The talent in the cornerback room adds another wrinkle to Ryans’ scheme. Being able to man up all over the field, with good cover corners and speedy linebackers, should equal more coverage sacks than normal for the 49ers. In 2019, and since, the secondary relied on the pass rush to be its crutch. Corners could be aggressive, pouncing on routes, knowing the defensive line would get to the quarterback in a few winks. When the pass rush didn’t get there, the secondary was in trouble. But this secondary is shaping up to be more of an aid for the defensive front. They should be able to hold their own for longer and are in position to weather some injuries.
“I think this year, more than any year before,” Bosa said to KNBR’s Greg Papa and John Lund, “we have top-tier players at each level.”
The 49ers lost a critical veteran in Tartt. The safety ended his Bay Area tenure on a sour note, dropping the interception that likely could’ve put the 49ers in the Super Bowl, but there is no denying Tartt was a vital part of the defense’s success. He and Jimmie Ward formed one of the best safety tandems in the league.
Ward is back. Talanoa Hufanga, who looked special in spots last season and filled in well when Tartt was out, has the early lead as the starting strong safety. But he’s being pushed by Tarvarius Moore and free agent signee George Odum. Either way, that’s four safeties they feel good about, continuing their theme of depth.
They have many of the strengths from 2019. But they’ve revamped to cover some of the weaknesses of that squad. Many of the players who made that team good were young then and much better now, including Bosa and the linebackers. This defense might be onto something.
(Top photo: Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)