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NFC West preview: 49ers hope bolstered pass rush will help them take division title

Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa should help improve the San Francisco 49ers’ pass rush this season.
Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa should help improve the San Francisco 49ers’ pass rush this season.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

The San Francisco 49ers are a crown-jewel NFL organization with more than two dozen Hall of Famers, five Lombardi Trophies and a rich lore spanning eight decades.

But last season, the 49ers made history in a humiliating way.

They finished the year with two interceptions — count ’em, two — the fewest for an NFL team over the course of a season. The previous record of 11 was set by the Baltimore Colts in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

It was an embarrassing deficiency that absolutely had to be addressed in the offseason, and the team did.

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Instead of overhauling the secondary, however, the 49ers worked on the root problem: They weren’t generating a pass rush, and opposing quarterbacks had far too much time to sit back and dissect the defense.

Previewing the 2019 NFL season as the league celebrates its 100th year and the Rams and Chargers look to contend for the Super Bowl LIV title.

So the 49ers picked up a couple of elite defensive ends who could rip around the edges and wreak havoc.

They traded a second-round pick to Kansas City for Dee Ford, who in 2018 had 13 sacks and forced a league-high seven fumbles, and used the No. 2 overall selection on Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, younger brother of Chargers defensive star Joey Bosa.

Such is the symbiotic relationship of the front and back ends of a defense. If quarterbacks have less time, they tend to make more mistakes. If the secondary blankets the receivers, that gives the rushers more time to get to the quarterback.

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“It’s something that [coach Kyle Shanahan] and I had as a priority when we got here,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said after drafting Bosa. “Two of the first things we talked about is finding our quarterback and finding the guys to knock them down.

San Francisco 49ers’ Dee Ford jogs during a team training camp session on July 27.
San Francisco 49ers’ Dee Ford jogs during a team training camp session on July 27.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

“Both in quality and quantity we have improved drastically in that respect. Now we have to go deliver. Nick really helps us in our ability to do that.”

Ford and Bosa look as if they could be dominant, even though each was hampered by injuries in training camp. Bosa is hobbling on a bum ankle, and Ford is slowed by knee tendinitis that the 49ers say he has managed through the years.

The closest comparison to the current duo is when the 49ers had Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith during the brief Jim Harbaugh glory days, but the most sacks Brooks had in a season was 81/2.

Bosa and Ford look capable of being double-digit sack guys. Toss in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, and, as Bosa said, “It’s pretty impossible to double-team all of us.”

The Rams also have some significant defensive additions, including Pro Bowl veterans Clay Matthews at linebacker and Eric Weddle at safety. It remains to be seen how much those players have left in the tank, but clearly the Rams believe they can be helpful both on the field and in the locker room.

The team also added safety Taylor Rapp, a hard-hitting second-round pick from the University of Washington.

The defenses Pete Carroll built in Seattle have been some of the best in the league, but the Seahawks are in rebuilding mode, especially after trading defensive end Frank Clark to the Chiefs.

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In comes Ziggy Ansah from Detroit, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and fellow defensive end Cassius Marsh, a former UCLA standout who was drafted by Seattle in 2014 and spent three seasons there before landing in New England (briefly) and San Francisco.

Arizona’s defense figures to be lousy, at or near the bottom of the league, but new coach Kliff Kingsbury and top-pick quarterback Kyler Murray should make for an entertaining offense. Murray is ultra-mobile and elusive.

How elusive? We’ll find out on Halloween, when the Cardinals play host to the 49ers in a Thursday night game.

Arizona Cardinals

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Kyler Murray: The rookie No. 1 pick already looks comfortable in rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, directing traffic and changing plays at the line of scrimmage. He’s running basically the same offense Murray ran at Oklahoma … but will it work in the NFL?

WR Christian Kirk: After a solid rookie season, Kirk needs to take the next step to take more pressure off future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Kirk was starting to emerge in 2018 when he suffered a broken foot.

LB Jordan Hicks: Inside linebacker is a position of need for this team with a history of injuries and an inability to stop the run. The patchwork job last year didn’t work. Now, new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph needs Hicks to be a stopper, although he also had trouble staying healthy when with the Philadelphia Eagles.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

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CB Byron Murphy: This rookie from Washington might not start but likely will line up in the slot for a secondary that will miss All-Pro Patrick Peterson for the first six games because of a suspension.

DE Zach Allen: With the Cardinals parting ways with defensive linemen Darius Philon and Robert Nkemdiche, this rookie likely will be pressed into a starting role.

LT D.J. Humphries: Left tackle Humphries has a lot of talent, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. This is a contract year for him, and this offense — with its many multireceiver sets — demands that tackles work without much help.

BURNING QUESTION

Kingsbury had a losing record as a college coach and failed to win more than seven games with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. Can he get traction with this offense in the NFL?

2018: 3-13, fourth in division

Last year in playoffs: 2015

Los Angeles Rams

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Jared Goff: With a contract extension looming, Goff needs to continue to make strides, showing he can bounce back from a disappointing Super Bowl. Big third year in Sean McVay’s offensive system.

C Brian Allen: Gone is the seasoned John Sullivan and in moves the second-year Allen, who was never activated for a game as a rookie. First up: an opener at raucous Carolina. The first Rams player to touch the ball on every snap is essentially a rookie.

DT Sebastian Joseph-Day: He’s on track to start at nose tackle, replacing Ndamukong Suh. The Rams were bad against the run last season, in part because Suh would freelance and sometimes leave his assignment. Joseph-Day will need to stay home and let plays come to him.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

LG Joe Noteboom: A swing tackle last season who is likely to eventually replace Andrew Whitworth at left tackle, Noteboom replaces Rodger Saffold and will have 14-year veteran Whitworth on one side and fellow second-year lineman Allen on other.

OLB Dante Fowler: Although he had opportunities for longer-term deals elsewhere, Fowler opted to re-sign a one-year agreement. He essentially gambled on himself, and he’s coming off a strong finish.

S Eric Weddle: In essence, Weddle is a defensive coordinator on the field. He’ll line up all over, direct traffic and lend his wealth of experience. The Rams are giving up something in going with a 34-year-old safety (as opposed to 28-year-old Lamarcus Joyner), but the experience could be worth it.

BURNING QUESTION

Is Todd Gurley still Todd Gurley? His disappointing showings in the NFC title game and Super Bowl fueled speculation that he’s dealing with residual knee issues, but the Rams insist he isn’t nursing an injury.

2018: 13-3, first in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018

San Francisco 49ers

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Jimmy Garoppolo: He’s the face of the franchise and has a huge contract, although he has played only eight games for the 49ers. He was 5-0 in his starts two years ago, and 1-2 last season before tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament. Where is he in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system, and how will Garoppolo’s restructured knee hold up?

DE Dee Ford: The 49ers haven’t generated any heat off the edge in recent years, and Ford should help that if he can do what he did during his best years in Kansas City. Statswise, he had two big seasons with the Chiefs and three modest ones.

CB Richard Sherman: It’s stunning, but San Francisco had just two interceptions last season, a league record for futility. Sherman was shut out for the first time in his career. The ramped-up pass rush should help the secondary.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

TE George Kittle: Tight end is the focal point of this offense, and Kittle is a prolific one. He set the single-season yardage record at the position last season, establishing that new standard in Los Angeles in December.

DE Nick Bosa: He has looked great for much of the summer, like someone worthy of the No. 2 pick. But Bosa missed all of spring workouts with a hamstring injury and rolled his ankle in camp. Can he stay healthy?

WR Dante Pettis: Shanahan thinks Pettis is the most talented receiver on the team and is pushing him this summer to step into that No. 1 role. Pettis needs to be more consistent and avoid injury.

BURNING QUESTION

The 49ers have been torpedoed by a slew of big injuries in recent years. Can they stay healthy enough to put a strong season together?

2018: 4-12, third in division

Last year in playoffs: 2013

Seattle Seahawks

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

RB Chris Carson: Even though the Seahawks used a first-round pick on Rashaad Penny, Carson was solid enough to hang on to his job as the No. 1 running back. Carson and Penny are going to be big factors in the Seattle offense this season.

WR D.K. Metcalf: With Doug Baldwin’s retirement, the Seahawks will turn to this second-round pick, a specimen at 6 feet 4, 225 pounds. Unlike Baldwin, Metcalf isn’t a slot receiver but should get plenty of attention from quarterback Russell Wilson.

LB Bobby Wagner: He might be the best linebacker in the league, and he’s the quarterback of a young and rebuilt defense. Plays alongside talented fellow linebackers Barkevious Mingo and K.J. Wright. Still, this is not the elite Seahawks defense we’ve come to know.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

TE Will Dissly: His rookie season was cut short by a knee injury, but Dissly caught two touchdown passes in his first four games. Tight end plays a significant role, and he should make a sizable contribution.

DE L.J. Collier: The Seahawks envision this year’s first-round pick in a Michael Bennett role, lining up inside and outside. The defense is missing pass rushers Frank Clark and Dion Jordan from last season and won’t have Jarran Reed for the first six games because of a suspension.

S Marquise Blair: Seattle’s tradition of hard-hitting safeties lives on in Blair, who twice was ejected for targeting in his senior season at Utah last fall. The second-round pick has been studying film of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor to figure how to be a relentless (but clean) enforcer.

BURNING QUESTION

Can Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson rediscover the success of earlier years with all the changes on both sides of the ball?

2018: 10-6, second in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018


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