The 49ers' new defense is going to get a major test right out of the starting gate.
On Sunday, San Francisco will play host to the Carolina Panthers, a team that likes to run the football. Running backs Jonathan Stewart, rookie Christian McCaffrey and Fozzy Whittaker — a backup who ran for more than 100 yards against the 49ers last season — will be a challenge to stop, as will Cam Newton, one of the NFL’s best running quarterbacks.
In 2016, the 49ers had the worst run defense in the NFL, giving up an average of 165.9 yards per game and 4.8 yards per attempt.
But this season’s Niners defense is much different than last year’s. New coordinator Robert Saleh has established a 4-3 scheme that will be similar to the one in Seattle, and first-round picks Reuben Foster at linebacker and Solomon Thomas on the defensive line will be two prime additions to a unit that will include veteran Pro Bowler NaVorro Bowman at middle linebacker, free-agent pickup Earl Mitchell at nose tackle and previous first-round picks DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead on the defensive line.
The 49ers will have six first-round picks on defense from 2013 or later, so the franchise definitely has paid attention to improving its D.
As Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group noted in a story Tuesday, Saleh has said stopping the run will be his unit’s No. 1 priority.
“The way we align, our demeanor, the responsibility of the defensive players – we will stop the run on this defense,” Saleh said.
Saleh has simplified the defensive playbook and given his players up front responsibility to cover just one run gap, instead of two. That, he says, should allow 49ers defenders to operate more efficiently.
“When a player completely understands what he’s responsible for, they can play a lot more free,” Saleh said recently. “They can play a lot faster because once they clear their greatest issue, now than just go play football.”
One thing the 49ers run defense will have on its side, too, is Bowman, who is healthy again and playing in a new spot, at middle linebacker, after years of being an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
Bowman, who missed all of the 2014 season and most of 2016 because of injuries, believes he has something to prove in 2017. He wants to be known as the best linebacker in the NFL and is eager to show it, starting Sunday.
“To not be mentioned as one of the best since I entered the league makes me feel a certain way sometimes,” Bowman told the San Francisco Chronicle. “For the respect not be be presented and given, it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
The Panthers-49ers game at Levi’s Stadium Sunday is set to kick off at 1:25 p.m.