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The 49ers defense got healthy just in time to wreak playoff havoc

San Francisco’s defense slowed down while it dealt with injuries late in the year. Now it’s back to being The Monstars again.

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Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In four out of the last five NFL Drafts, the San Francisco 49ers selected a defensive lineman in the first round. Surprise surprise, the 49ers now have a defense loaded with Goliaths up front.

All four of those 49ers first-round picks sacked Kirk Cousins in a 27-10 clubbing of the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round. Rookie Nick Bosa did it twice, while DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Solomon Thomas had one sack each. The other participant in the San Francisco sack party Saturday was Dee Ford, a Chiefs first-round pick in 2014, who was acquired in an offseason trade.

There’s so much talent up front for the 49ers that it’s actually tough to get the entire quintet of first-rounders on the field — especially when all five are healthy. It’s a good problem to have, and for the first time in a while, San Francisco has that luxury.

The poor Vikings were on the wrong end of that destructive force. Now the Packers have to be worried about it in the NFC Championship Game.

San Francisco can collapse a pocket in a flash

Scoring opportunities were few and far between for Minnesota. It finished with 147 yards of offense and seven first downs — the fewest a team has had in a playoff game in 13 years.

One of those rare chances to score came late in the second quarter. Jimmy Garoppolo threw an interception to Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks deep in San Francisco territory. Minnesota took over 29 yards from the end zone with 2:41 left in the half and a chance to tie the game at 14-14.

A couple of quick completions to Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen moved the Vikings into the red zone. But an unsuccessful screen pass followed by an incompletion left Minnesota with a third-and-11 on the 17-yard line.

It was perfect time to send out the pass-rushing wrecking crew and let them pin their ears back. Buckle up Mr. Cousins, here they come.

49ers defensive lineman Dee Ford sacks Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins with help from other 49ers players

Good lord. Cousins never had a chance and the Vikings were forced to settle for a field goal.

Armstead (No. 91) hit the right tackle with a full head of steam and beat him to the inside shoulder before the right guard had a chance to do a thing about it. Buckner (No. 99) put the center in reverse and gave him a 6-yard ride straight into the lap of Cousins. Ford (No. 55) torched the left guard so cleanly that he had a hand on Cousins’ back just under three seconds after the ball was snapped. Bosa (No. 97) took a wide route around the left tackle that eliminated the only possible escape out the back door.

That is utter domination with a four-man rush that still allowed seven 49ers players to drop into coverage. This is what Cousins’ options looked like at the moment Ford first reached his arm out and made contact.

Here’s another third down later in the game with the same foursome tasked with getting after Cousins.

While the threat of a chip block slowed Ford a bit and a double team kept Armstead at bay, Buckner and Bosa took little time annihilating the left side of the Vikings’ offensive line.

Bosa turned the corner around left tackle Riley Reiff in a hurry, and it probably would’ve been enough for his third sack of the day. Buckner barely won the race to the quarterback, though. Buckner beat guard Pat Elflein with an arm-over move and buried Cousins with the 49ers’ fastest sack of the game.

All that size, power, and speed was too much for the Vikings.

The 49ers defense is healthy again

A quadriceps injury kept Ford out of action in five of the last six weeks of the regular season, and Bosa dealt with a tweaked ankle that limited his playing time in September.

It wasn’t just the defensive line that dealt with injuries down the stretch. There was also the absence of linebacker Kwon Alexander due to a torn pectoral suffered in Week 9, and a ribs injury for safety Jaquiski Tartt that cost him the last four games of the regular season. All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman missed a game in December due to a hamstring strain too.

In the first eight weeks of the season, the 49ers held opponents to an average of 11 points and 224.4 yards. Quarterbacks had a 57.5 passer rating against the San Francisco secondary.

But in the last nine weeks of 2019, San Francisco gave up 25.9 points per game, 326.4 yards, and a 98.8 passer rating.

The quality of competition played a factor. The 49ers played Cincinnati, Washington, and Carolina in the first half of the season, and had matchups against eventual playoff teams in five of their last eight games. But the 49ers defense clearly slowed down as the wear and tear of the season kept important players out of action.

Now Ford, Alexander, Tartt, and Sherman are all healthy and back in the lineup. San Francisco looked more like its September and October self when it smothered the Vikings offense. That’s scary for the Packers, and possibly, the winner of the AFC Championship too.

Only four teams allowed fewer sacks in 2019 than the Vikings, who gave up 28. The Packers gave up 36 sacks, although that doesn’t necessarily mean Minnesota’s offensive line is better than Green Bay’s. Aaron Rodgers was one of five quarterbacks in the NFL who held the ball longer than four seconds per sack in 2019. Cousins’ average was at 3.2 seconds for sacks.

When the 49ers played the Packers near the end of November, they were without Ford and Alexander. That didn’t stop San Francisco from sacking Rodgers five times and holding the Green Bay offense to just 198 yards in a 37-8 win.

The Packers are going to have to speed things up and find a way to get the ball out of Rodgers’ hand a lot faster if they’re going to do better in the rematch. The 49ers defense is healthy again and they don’t need four seconds to ruin your day.