How the 49ers rush defense hoisted itself up from rock bottom

SANTA CLARA — Week 7 still haunts 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

With the Dallas Cowboys in town, the Niners regressed to their 2016 form and allowed Ezekiel Elliott to run wild. They surrendered 265 rushing yards that game and entered Week 8 with the worst run defense in the NFL.

“Dallas game still punches me in the stomach, punches all of us really,” Saleh said Thursday.

There wasn’t an immediate turnaround from that performance. The team would endure a couple more blows before they were able to effectively clamp down.

But in the last three games, the Niners allowed 80.67 rushing yards per game and an average of 3.36 yards per carry. Some of that has to do with the quality of their opponents, but the defense has latched onto the positive results and the good vibes they bring.

“We feel really good about where we are from a yards per carry [standpoint],” Saleh said. “Overall, we’re holding teams down in overall rushing yards.”

On Sunday, the 49ers host the Tennessee Titans, who boast bruising running backs (DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry) in the backfield and should have their Pro Bowl left tackle (Taylor Lewan) healthy. It’ll be a challenge for the rush-defense to stay hot, but here’s how they turned it around to this point …

Comfort in the system

When Saleh came to Santa Clara, he brought with him a simple scheme run by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and a couple other teams.

The scheme streamlines what defenders look for before the snap, and players only have one gap to cover on each play.

“Just do your job and stay in your gap,” Eric Reid explained on Wednesday.

It’s easy to learn and it allows players to focus more on what the opposing offense does and less on individual responsibilities. The straightforward system has allowed several rookies to thrive in crucial roles.

“The way the scheme is built — the philosophy behind it, the detail at which we go over run fits and gap integrity — I felt very confident that we’d be able to improve in the run game,” Saleh said.

Having your starters healthy helps, too.

Reuben Foster, the 49ers’ star rookie linebacker, left the Dallas game with an injury, and his absence showed as the Cowboys attacked the second level of the defense with regularity and to great success.

Saleh said the “injury bug has kind of settled down,” but the Niners may be without No. 1 cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon this weekend after he suffered a sprained knee last week. He was limited in both days of practice this week.

The Jimmy factor

If there’s a positive development around the 49ers these days, you can bet someone in the building will find a way to praise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

In addition to limiting the time the defense spends on the field by sustaining drives, Garoppolo has inspired hope that a defensive stop will be rewarded with points.

“They feel they need to get the offense the ball,” Saleh said.

One surefire way to ensure the defense performs well is by limiting the opportunities the opponent has to run. Including the loss against Seattle in Week 12, the 49ers have won time of possession in the last three games combined by slightly less than 29 minutes.

“Everything is designed to stop the run,” Saleh said.

Stop the run. Limit the number of “explosive” plays. Everyone does their job.

It’s that simple.

Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at jpalmer@sfexaminer.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.

Jacob C. Palmer
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