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49ers DeForest Buckner channels Justin Smith's unselfish move

Mercury News — Cam Inman Mercury News

Dec. 07--SANTA CLARA -- DeForest Buckner lined up on the right side of the 49ers defensive line. At the snap, he immediately engaged the Chicago Bears left tackle, hooked him with his right arm and then simultaneously took on the Bears left guard.

Meanwhile, Cassius Marsh rushed in untouched from the right edge to sack quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and force a fumble on a pivotal, third-down play.

To summarize: Don't fret that Buckner went without a tackle for the first time in his career as the 49ers emerged Sunday with a 15-14 win.

That "grab-speed" move which Buckner made to spring Marsh free is exactly what Justin Smith unselfishly did many times for Aldon Smith in the 2011-14 seasons.

"I've seen Justin do that a lot in his career," Buckner said. "I thought it was ironic that we did that and he was at the game."

Smith, who retired after the 2014 season, indeed attended Sunday's game. And he got a shoutout in film review this week from coach Kyle Shanahan, who showed the Buckner-Marsh play and referred to Buckner's fine impression of Smith.

"That's a huge play," defensive tackle Earl Mitchell. "That's a matter of his speed, his length, his strength and being able to get out there and help Cassius make the play."

Marsh made the grab-speed call, some two weeks after being claimed off waivers from the New England Patriots. He said they worked on it in practice, then got the go-ahead from defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina to use it on that final play of the third quarter.

"Luckily I've got big D-Fo, he grabbed the tackle and let me get some love, get a strip-sack," Marsh said. "He's a monster of a player. Maybe we can get better at disguising it."

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh concurred: "(Buckner) did a great job but it showed up a little too much on tape. We've got to figure out how to get a little more sly with it."

Saleh noted that play is "not something you want to make a living out of," but at least it makes opponents aware that other linemen can get free if too many are blocking Buckner.

It's also a play that doesn't help Buckner's personal stats, or what you'd expect from the 2016 draft's No. 7 overall pick. It is, however, simply part of Buckner's job description. He lines up primarily over a guard, often attracts double teams and consistently hustles in pursuit of the football.

Buckner has played 80 percent of the defensive snaps, a sizeable workload. Last game, he was in for only 26 snaps, far below his average of 59 snaps per game this season. That's because the defense played only 37 snaps overall, their fewest since 1991.

"It felt like we could strap everything back on and play another game," said Buckner, who got Thursday's practice off to rest, as did Mitchell.

Buckner got held on a couple plays that Sunday's officiating crew did not flag. He drew double-team blocks on nine snaps. And the Bears ran the majority of their plays away from him.

Buckner wanted a career-high 10 sacks this season. He has only 1 1/2, and those came two months ago. His rookie season saw him produce six sacks and play over 1,000 snaps, more than any defensive linemen in the league.

Defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, this year's No. 3 overall draft pick, isn't putting up impressive stats, either. He has two sacks and 29 tackles, but no more than two tackles in any game since a career-high nine tackles Oct. 15 at Washington. However, Thomas did pressure and eventually hit Trubisky on a third-down incompletion in the third quarter Sunday, while Buckner raced in next to him to provide more pressure.

Chalk it up to another hidden assist from Buckner, like the Marsh sack.

"Being able to help my other teammates have success, it's always an awesome feeling," Buckner said.

Next up for Buckner and the 49ers (2-10) is Sunday's game at the Houston Texans (4-8). Tom Savage is in line to make his sixth straight start since Deshaun Watson's season-ending knee injury. Savage got sacked four times in last Sunday's loss to the Tennessee Titans, and that could make things more appetizing for Buckner & Co.

"We have a lot of young talent and have drafted a lot the past couple years," Buckner said. "The coaching staff is trying to keep it simple so we can play faster. There've been glimpses through the year, and at some point we'll be able to do it throughout the whole four quarters."

-- When it comes to protecting Jimmy Garoppolo in the pocket, left tackle Joe Staley is quickly learning where his new quarterback will be. "He does a good job getting the ball out pretty quick and his set-up point is pretty consistent," Staley said. "So you know where he's going to be pretty much all the time, where he's setting up, how deep the pocket needs to be for tackles, where the depth is for guards and the inside guys. It's been pretty consistent."

More challenging this start will be Garoppolo's ability to avoid Jadeveon Clowney, who has nine sacks and two fumble recoveries. Staley compared Clowney (6-foot-5, 270 pounds) to former 49ers pass rusher Aldon Smith, adding: "He's really good at using his hands, getting skinny through blocks and getting super powerful as well. There's a reason why he was drafted No. 1 overall (in 2014), and it's because he's a super talent guy."

-- Right tackle Trent Brown (shoulder) did individual conditioning on a side field before practicing in limited capacity. Brown said his shoulder felt "OK" in Chicago and he's hopeful to play at Houston.

-- Saleh is among those wishing the best for Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier in the wake of Monday's spinal injury. "It's terrible what happened. Love that kid, too. He's a fantastic linebacker," Saleh said. "If it's been talked about (among 49ers), I haven't heard it. But our style of tackling, it goes back to keeping your head out of the game, shoulder tackling, keeping your head leverage side. It's unfortunate (Shazier's) head got in there a little bit. It was very unlucky. I pray to God he'll be alright."


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