SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kyle Shanahan wasn’t fully pleased with the performance of the 49ers’ defensive line in their previous victory over the Saints, and he let the unit know about it on Saturday night during a team meeting ahead of Sunday’s showdown against the Dolphins.
Shanahan’s critique was just lighthearted banter — or so the coach thought, until he saw star edge rusher Nick Bosa stone-faced on the receiving end.
“I told (the D-linemen) that I thought the linebackers outperformed them last week,” Shanahan said. “And I thought they would smile, but he didn’t smile at all.”
Fast forward less than 24 hours. The 49ers had just smothered the Dolphins and their top-ranked offense. Bosa had finished off the 33-17 win with a strip sack — his third sack of the day (he leads the NFL with 14 1/2 sacks) — returned for a touchdown by linebacker Dre Greenlaw. There was no remaining doubt about the true standing of the 49ers’ defense during that roaring moment at Levi’s Stadium. It is indeed an elite unit, and Shanahan thought that Bosa was approaching him with a celebratory hug.
“I thought we were going to celebrate together,” Shanahan said. “And he goes, ‘That’s what happens when you talk — that way — in the team meeting.’”
Bosa’s exact, stoically delivered words to his coach — according to the edge rusher: “‘Don’t talk s— about me anymore.”
The entire 49ers’ defensive line had taken Shanahan’s barb personally, according to Bosa. So it turns out that Shanahan had delivered effective motivational fuel at an opportune time — on the night before the 49ers would become more reliant on their defense than ever before.
Conquering Miami’s offense was a tall task to begin with. But doing so without starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who fractured his foot on the team’s first offensive drive, further pressurized the defense’s role — both in this game, and in the larger context of the 2022 season. News of Garoppolo’s season-ending injury reached the entire roster by halftime, when players passed the training room on their way into the locker room and consoled their quarterback.
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“It just stinks because I really felt him coming on even more so this year,” Bosa said. “He’s always been a great leader but I felt him really, really caring about this team and his part. I saw him at halftime and I was pretty emotional.
“I couldn’t get it off of my mind. I just had to force myself to block it out and keep going. And I think our defense obviously did a pretty damn good job.”
The 49ers, who’d made sterling defensive adjustments over a second-half shutout streak that had spanned the previous four games, had to make their tweaks before the second play this time around. That’s because Miami struck on Sunday’s first play with a bolt from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to former 49ers receiver Trent Sherfield, who sprinted untouched for a 75-yard touchdown.
The 49ers’ coverage alignments had been slightly off on that first snap, and Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel — Shanahan’s longtime assistant and the 49ers’ former offensive coordinator — had used the Dolphins’ lightning speed to make them pay.
“It was a breakdown in coverage, just a simple mistake out there,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said. “We didn’t flinch. You can’t look at things like that emotionally. You just have to look at how you can adjust.”
The 49ers fixed the issue by relying on Warner, one of the game’s elite middle-field defenders, to take away Miami’s favorite routes. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Tagovailoa entered the game having completed 38 passes to the intermediate middle third of the field this season — 16 more than any other NFL quarterback — on his way to league-best efficiency numbers. Tagovailoa completed only two such passes against the 49ers.
What’s more, Warner and his cohorts largely dissuaded Tagovailoa from even trying to throw to the intermediate middle third of the field:
certified Fred Warner moment pic.twitter.com/jVcds9E4Cd
— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlass) December 5, 2022
By compromising Miami’s route options, the 49ers allowed Bosa and the D-line to work against the Dolphins’ beleaguered offensive line, which was missing both of its starting offensive tackles.
“We have the best defense in the league,” 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel said in the locker room after the game. “They put a lot of pressure on Tua early. I feel with the pressure they were bringing, he was just throwing gimmes out there.”
Tagovailoa, who’d entered the game having thrown only three interceptions all season, threw picks on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. One went to 49ers DB Jimmie Ward, who leapt over former 49ers’ running back Jeff Wilson Jr. to nab a football that Tagovailoa had thrown under duress from D-lineman Arik Armstead. The second interception came off an errant pass that was tipped to 49ers cornerback Deommodore Lenoir.
Speaking of Wilson, neither he nor Raheem Mostert — the other former 49er in Miami’s backfield — could muster up much of anything. The Dolphins managed only 33 rushing yards on eight carries, leaving Samuel in position to fire back at his former teammates after the game.
“I thought they had the best talent,” Samuel said, in reference to some fiery comments from Mostert leading up to the game. “Oh, my bad.”
On the topic of talent, the 49ers’ D-line is clearly dripping with it — especially after Armstead returned to game action from foot and ankle injuries for the first time since early October. The towering defensive tackle’s impact was tempered by a return-to-play pitch count, but the 49ers were forced to abandon that precaution late in the fourth quarter with Miami driving and threatening to take the lead.
That’s because a pectoral muscle injury knocked 49ers defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway out of the game. Armstead trotted in to join Bosa on a critical third-and-2 with the Dolphins at the 49ers’ 36-yard line and trailing only 23-17. He immediately absorbed a double-team that helped free up rookie edge rusher Drake Jackson to bat away Tagovailoa’s pass. The 49ers then forced another incompletion on fourth down.
“The length, experience and leadership that he brings to the table — it definitely was a piece we’ve been missing,” Greenlaw said of Armstead. “I can feel (his pass rushes) a lot. It speeds up the whole process.”
Greenlaw, who finished with a team-leading eight tackles, also sped up through the game. On that critical 49ers’ stand, two plays prior to Armstead’s entry, Greenlaw delivered one of the season’s most impressive stops. Tagovailoa had hit receiver Tyreek Hill, one of the NFL’s fastest players, on a crossing route. But Greenlaw ate up enough turf to force Hill out of bounds for a harmless 3-yard gain.
“Tyreek is extremely scary every time he runs a crosser,” Shanahan said. “For a linebacker to be able to get there and wrap him up, that was an unbelievable play and a play that not many people can make.”
It turns out that Greenlaw had learned from experience, as Hill had whizzed by him earlier in the game.
“The first time they ran that play earlier, I was patient on it and saw someone fast as hell come running,” Greenlaw said. “My eyes got big because I had never seen anybody just run that speed. So when they came back to it again, I said, ‘No, he ain’t going to outrun me this time.’ I got on the horse a little bit.”
Call it a sensational midstream adjustment from Greenlaw, one that might be symbolic of the seemingly Herculean task now facing the 49ers’ defense. The team is 8-4 and on top of the NFC West, but its title chances have obviously taken a huge hit with the loss of Garoppolo. Massive pressure now rests on the defense’s shoulders, in large part because of what that unit has demonstrated over the five games since an ugly loss to Kansas City.
The 49ers’ second-half shutout streak is no more — it ended at four games after Hill hauled in a 45-yard touchdown bomb from Tagovailoa in Sunday’s fourth quarter — but its reputation is fully restored now. Sucking the life out of a top-tier offense has fully revived any swagger that the 49ers’ defense may have lost in that defeat to the Chiefs.
That’s evidenced by the team’s proclamations in the locker room after the game. They’re openly calling themselves the NFL’s best defense again, and even using that belief to express their confidence in the team’s new starting quarterback, rookie Brock Purdy.
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“He’s played (in practice) against the best defense in the league for the past 13 weeks,” Warner said. “So he’s going to be just fine.”
Perhaps the final restoration of this brashness can be traced back to Saturday night, when Shanahan ticked off Bosa by saying that the 49ers’ linebackers had played better than their D-linemen against the Saints.
“We talked in our D-line meeting,” Bosa said. “We don’t like being called out like that.”
But the 49ers obviously responded to it. And that wasn’t lost on Shanahan, who saw Bosa’s monstrous performance against Miami and wasn’t apologetic about critiquing one of his superstars.
“I’ll make a note,” Shanahan said. “I’ll make sure to do it a lot more.”
Is some more smack-talking from his coach OK with Bosa?
“Yeah,” Bosa said. “Light the fire.”
(Photo of Nick Bosa: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)