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The 49ers defense has picked up plenty of potential nicknames this year: “Hot Boyzz” or “Hot Boyzz University,” “Gold Rush,” “Gold Crush,” “Sack Francisco” and so on. But one key defender is unimpressed by the selection.
“I don’t like none of them,” defensive end Dee Ford said Tuesday in Miami.
Admittedly, none of the nicknames are all that catchy or original. “Sack Francisco” has been around forever, “Gold Rush” is the name of the cheerleading squad and the linebackers borrowed Hot Boyzz from Lil Wayne.
But there’s no denying that the nicknames are a sign of respect. Only the greatest defenses of all time get immortalized as the Steel Curtain, Purple People Eaters or Orange Crush. And the 49ers defense, particularly the defensive line led by Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Ford, is already being mentioned in the same conversation as those legendary units.
“It’s amazing to be put in that light, with those great defenses,” Armstead said. “It’s something we want to be recognized for. … If people are putting us up there with those great defenses, we are definitely doing something special this year.”
With so much young talent at its nucleus, San Francisco’s defensive line could earn a nickname that Ford will hateand opposing quarterbacks will dread hearingfor years to come.
The 49ers are poised to become the first great defense of the NFL’s second century.
But first things first. That defensive line must earn its naming rights by leading the team to a victory over the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday.
‘I knew what the future held’
Arik Armstead in 2016, when the 49ers were down and outD. Ross Cameron/Associated Press
The story of the 49ers defensive line begins at the University of Oregon, where roommates and teammates Armstead and Buckner spent their Saturdays stalking Pac-12 quarterbacks and their Sundays together watching the great NFL players and teams of that long-ago era.
Er, this was 2013-14 we’re talking about. So make that a not-so-long-ago era.
“The great players then are still great players now, like J.J. Watt, Von Miller.” Armstead said. “I was a big Julius Peppers fan. I looked up to Calais Campbell.”
Added Buckner: “I remember watching a lot of Denver, and the Seahawks. Certainly the teams with the great defensive lines.”
Armstead left Oregon after his junior season. He was drafted 17th overall by a 49ers team that had just lost head coach Jim Harbaugh and much of the core of a team that reached the Super Bowl a few seasons earlier. Armstead took his rookie lumps on a 5-11 team coached by former Harbaugh assistant Jim Tomsula.
“It was a time to learn, a time to become a better player,” he said of his rookie season. “We were fighting, grinding, trying to win games. The scoreboard wasn’t reflecting the work we were putting in.”
The college roommates were reunited when the 49ers selected Buckner with the seventh overall pick in 2016. Armstead helped Buckner transition to the NFL, as did another familiar face: new 49ers coach Chip Kelly, who recruited both players and coached them as freshmen at Oregon. Buckner quickly began making an impact, but Armstead was sidetracked by injuries, and the 49ers sank all the way to 2-14.
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Another year brought another new regime and a new rookie Pac-12 defensive lineman: The 49ers drafted Stanford’s Solomon Thomas third overall in 2017 and charged head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch with rebuilding a franchise stuck in a deep rut. Despite boasting three first-round picks on the defensive line, the 49ers mustered only 30 sacks in 2017 and 37 in 2018. Buckner became a Pro Bowler, but Thomas and the oft-injured Armstead were written off as busts.
“I always thought we had a good team,” Armstead said of the lean years. “We weren’t finding ways to win; we were finding ways to lose. But we continued to add talent and get better.”
The 49ers defensive line may not have been racking up stats, but one colleague and pending free agent took note of their potential.
“Part of me deciding to come here was that I knew what the future held,” Ford said. “I knew they had a really good chance of getting Nick [Bosa], and I knew he was a great talent. I always kept up with Solly [Thomas], Arik, [backup] Sheldon [Day]. They’ve been a really good D-line. Unfortunately, it just didn’t show up in the stats all the time. But I did a lot of research.”
Ford, coming off a 13-sack season but a disastrous playoff blunder for the Chiefs, signed a five-year, $85.5 million contract with the 49ers in March. The Niners then took advantage of yet another miserable season to select Bosa, the younger brother of Chargers Pro Bowler Joey Bosa, with the second overall pick in last year’s draft.
“I was extremely excited,” Armstead said about the new arrivals. “It was going to make my job that much easier, with those guys on the edge and me being able to work inside. I knew we were going to have so many combinations of lineups and have a lot of fun playing an attack style of football with so much talent.”
The 49ers defensive line now consisted of four first-round picks (with Thomas sliding into a role as a rotating backup) and one big-time free agent. Expenditures were high, and expectations were even higher.
“In the offseason, we said as a group that we wanted to set a tone,” Buckner said. “They invested a lot in our group, and we knew that everything was gonna start with us.”
Recalled Ford: “I still remember my first workout. I jumped in and it felt like I had already been a part of the D-line. Everything just clicked that fast. We were immediately sharing our knowledge, what we like to do, pass-rush wise. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of great energy right from the jump.”
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and new line coach Kris Kocurek implemented a new scheme that replaced two-gap read-and-react tactics with a gap-shooting approach. The coaches pushed the highly pedigreed defenders; Ford said Kocurek and Saleh made him feel “like a high schooler again,” motivation he feels he needed. The linemen gelled and bonded, and it soon became clear that they had assembled a critical mass of talent.
You know what happened next: 48 sacks, a 13-3 record for the 49ers, a trail of rattled quarterbacks in their wake, utter annihilation of the Vikings and Packers in the playoffs. The 49ers defense was no longer led by a bunch of busts, remnants of failed regimes, kid brothers and guys who jumped offside at the worst moment. They became the Gold Rush.
Or Sack Francisco. Or whatever.
‘We’re one heartbeat’
Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa celebrate a big stop in the NFC Championship GameTony Avelar/Associated Press
Buckner entered this season as the greatest NFL player you know nothing about. He’s as soft-spoken off the field as he is devastating on the field. Opponents would love to double-team him on every snap, but they cannot afford to.
In turn, that ability has opened up opportunities for his line mates like Armstead, who has been free to rotate to multiple positions along the line and use his 6’7″ frame to maximum advantage. Armstead recorded 10 sacks this season after tallying only nine in his previous four seasons combined.
Buckner is thrilled.
“People were calling him a bust,” he said, referring to Armstead. “He just hasn’t had the opportunity to have a season where he didn’t have any obstacles to overcome. He’s been injury-free all year, so he could show people what he’s really capable of.”
The new additions have also helped. Ford is screaming off the edge on the field while maintaining a laconic-but-still-intimidating presence off of it.
“Adding Dee opens up everything in the gaps,” Buckner said. “He also forces quarterbacks to step up. That’s something we really didn’t have here: guys off the edge who forced the quarterback to step up into your pressure.”
And then there’s the brash, demonstrative and often unstoppable Bosa.
“Nick is special, man,” Ford said.
“As a rookie, Nick has been phenomenal,” Buckner added. “He’s consistently in the backfield, making the quarterback uncomfortable. He’s also really good in the run game. And the way that he holds himself and prepares every week, you forget that he’s a rookie.”
The 49ers defensive line doesn’t just generate sacks. They each take pride in stopping the run and chasing down screen passes. Their ability to apply constant pressure allows Saleh to drop seven defenders into coverage on most passing downs, blitzing occasionally and judiciously. Despite the relative youth of the defense, the 49ers play smart, disciplined football week in and week out.
“We’re a very young team,” Ford said. “But we’re the most mature young team I have ever been part of.”
That youth should allow the 49ers defense to stick around for a while. Ford is the elder statesman of the defensive line at 28. Armstead and Buckner, both seasoned veterans, are 26 and 25, respectively. Bosa is only 22. Richard Sherman is the only regular defensive contributor over 30. In a league where great defenses rise and crumble in the course of a season or two (remember the 2017 Jaguars?), the 49ers have the youth, depth, talent and contract statusArmstead is the lone free agent on the defensive line, and the 49ers have long-term cap space to keep himto dominate the league for years to come.
And don’t expect egos or personality clashes to tear apart this disparate-but-unified group of defenders, either.
“We’re all different, personality-wise,” Ford said. “But we come together soulfully. … We’re one heartbeat.”
Maybe “One Heartbeat” would be a cool nickname for the 49ers defense.
Nah. Ford would probably hate that one, too.
‘Nobody’s gonna remember a runner-up’
DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford take down Kirk Cousins in the playoffs.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press
Ford quickly walked back his nickname remarks Tuesday, admitting that he doesn’t dislike all of them.
“I do like Gold Rush,” he said. “Gold Crush? I don’t know. It’s gotta be organic.”
That’s the problem with the whole “all-time great defense” business. You cannot force it. Steel Curtains and Legions of Boom only come around once or twice per decade, no matter how many times we try to anoint a bunch of guys who rack up a bundle of sacks as the next great defensive dynasty.
What the 49ers have built over the last five years is special. It’s a testament to the perseverance of Armstead and Buckner, Bosa’s preternatural abilities, Ford’s eagerness to join forces with the others, the coaching of Saleh and Kocurek, and the vision of Lynch to keep compounding the team’s investment in its defensive front. The 49ers defensive line led the team back to the Super Bowl, and the individuals deserve all of the acclaim they are finally getting.
But any nicknames or comparisons to the great defenses of yesteryear remain strictly provisional until after Sunday.
“It’s pretty cool to hear those comparisons,” Buckner said. “But at the end of the day, nobody’s gonna remember a runner-up. So we’ve got to finish the deal.”