By Matt Barrows | The Sacramento Bee
SANTA CLARA — When the 49ers visited the Bears last December, Chicago running back Jordan Howard rushed for 117 yards and scored three touchdowns. In the rematch Sunday he had 38 yards, no touchdowns and a reception that lost five yards.
Of course, there are myriad reasons for the discrepancy including bad weather last year that discouraged passing as well as the fact that San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo-led offense hogged the ball on Sunday and kept it out of the Bears’ hands.
Another major factor: The 49ers defense simply is better than it was a year ago when it flopped, flailed and flunked at the most basic aspect of the game: stopping the opponent’s rushing attack.
It’s something to keep in mind as Shanahan evaluates his coaching staff at season’s end. Because he coached in the Super Bowl, Shanahan got a late start on hiring assistants and eventually tapped someone to run his defense, Robert Saleh, who had never been a coordinator on any level, much less the NFL.
During that time, the 49ers looked hard at veteran coordinator Vic Fangio but could not pry him from the Bears because he was under contract. Gus Bradley, who took over as the Los Angeles Chargers’ defensive coordinator, also was among those initially considered.
The 49ers eventually hired Saleh, 38, who had been an assistant alongside Shanahan in Houston nearly a decade ago. The thinking at the time was, if the defense stumbles in 2017 the 49ers always could revisit Fangio when his contract runs out.
Fangio’s contract not only is set to expire, the entire Bears coaching staff could be gone in the coming weeks as the team limps to the finish line.
During his introductory press conference in April, Saleh said that stopping the run would be his top priority in San Francisco.
“The way we align, our demeanor, the responsibility of the defensive players, we will stop the run on this defense,” he said.
How well has he come through?
The 49ers defense still ranks in the bottom third of the NFL in most major categories this season and is 29th in rushing defense. That’s only three spots better than last year’s worst-ever 49ers defense. But it’s miles ahead when you examine the numbers.
n In 2016, they gave up a league-high 4.84 yards per carry. This year, that number is 3.85 yards per attempt, which is eighth best in the NFL. (The Seahawks, at 3.84 yards an attempt, are seventh best). That’s more impressive when you consider the 49ers have handled more rushing attempts, 386, than any other defense.
n After 12 games last year, nine different running backs, including some obscure ones, had run for at least 100 yards against the 49ers. At the 12-game mark this year, three runners have hit 100 yards: Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Adrian Peterson.
n Last year, the 49ers gave up 25 rushing touchdowns. This year they are on pace to allow 13.
Saleh and the 49ers seem to have implemented a good scheme, one that packs a couple of extra defenders, an outside linebacker and a strong safety, closer to the ball, an automatic advantage against the run.
The four other teams that use the scheme rank 1st (Jacksonville), 8th (Atlanta), 9th (Seattle) and 17th (Los Angeles Chargers) in total defense this year. (The 49ers rank 25th in that category).
All of which is to say, the 49ers appear to have a solid foundation on defense and an optimism that it will improve next year as starters return from injuries and their own offense gets incrementally better.
And that’s essentially what Shanahan and general manager John Lynch wanted see in Year 1 of their rebuild — the 49ers begin to lift off from the bottom of the pile.