With all the attention being paid to who will lead the 49ers’ offense, it’s starting to feel more and more like people have forgotten about what’s brewing on the other side of the ball.
It’s been a little over a year since the 49ers defensive line, led by Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa, anchored a run to Super Bowl LIV — an achievement that feels like a distant memory, thanks to an injury-stricken 2020 campaign for the club at-large.
An offseason of rehab and re-tooling has positioned San Francisco to remind everyone of what they can do when healthy, with first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans expecting to have Bosa, who returned to team drills for the first time this past week, and a still-rehabbing Dee Ford at his disposal alongside Armstead and newcomers Samson Ebukam and Arden Key.
“I mean, having Dee and Arden and Bosa and Samson, having all those guys available we can do a lot of things,” Ryans said Thursday, via team transcript. “All those guys are very talented and you have unlimited options with what you can do with all those guys. All of them are really great talents. All of them are awesome at rushing the passer. And we just want to utilize guys to their best ability. We want to be able to utilize them, utilize their strengths, to help us win games.”
As if the potential of this group wasn’t already scary enough, Ryans failed to mention second-year defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, who is only beginning to scratch the surface of what he can become.
In all, the talent that comprises the 49ers’ D-line checks about every box you can imagine. Youth, speed, toughness, tenacity; outside of staying healthy, there’s not much a coach can want for when examining this unit.
For Bosa and Ford, who played a combined three games in 2020, health will be a major point of concern. The 30-year-old Ford looks to remain a formidable force after a third significant back injury. Bosa, the 2019 Defensive Rookie of Year, re-joins the fray fresh off a torn ACL.
Having already overcome this hurdle twice before, Ford figures to again find his way back to being a serviceable piece. But, as Ryans expressed, Bosa’s response to the early-career adversity is going to be crucial to him getting back on track.
“The biggest thing always coming off of an injury, is just the mental hurdle of taking a hit and hitting the ground and getting up and dusting yourself off and understanding that, ‘Oh, everything is still intact. I’m still okay.’ It’s back to football,” Ryans said. ” … I see him just continuing to progress. But physically, I think he’s fine. It’ll just be the mental hurdle of getting over it. And I see him progressing really well in the area.”
In a world geared toward a “what have you done for me lately” mentality, no one is going to assume the 49ers defense will perform exactly how they did two seasons ago.
But, if they are able to reclaim a similar identity, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the club again in the thick of things come the postseason, regardless of who’s under center.