49ers run defense going ‘all gas’ mode


SANTA CLARA — Loss No. 1 of 14 last season previewed how historically terrible the 49ers run defense would be.

Remember when Fozzy Whittaker replaced an injured Jonathan Stewart and ran for 100 yards in that 46-27 loss at Carolina? Remember how that started a NFL-record streak of futility: the 49ers allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven straight games?

Game No. 1 this season should reveal a lot, too, and not just because it comes against the same opponent, the Panthers, on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 18: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers runs the ball against the San Francisco 49ers in the 3rd quarter during the game at Bank of America Stadium on September 18, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton runs against the San Francisco 49ers last season. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) 

Quarterback Cam Newton is coming off rotator cuff surgery and threw just two passes all exhibition season, so the Panthers most definitely will run at the 49ers, primarily with Stewart’s power approach and Stanford star Christian McCaffrey’s play-making versatility.

But the 49ers, perhaps you’ve heard by now, are opening a new era under coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. Changes abound on their defense.

“It feel likes a young team overall but in a good way,” nose tackle Earl Mitchell said in training camp. “Everybody has a fresh start, from top to bottom. We have a young, fresh, new mindset.”

That’s not all that gives this new-look defense hope.

— There is a new one-gap scheme that simplifies assignments. “I understand what I have and go play after the whistle,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “In previous years, you had maybe two gaps you were responsible for, and had to check those two gaps and make sure you were playing off the guy in front of you.”

— There are new run stoppers such as Mitchell, the first outside free agent signed by Lynch, along with first-round draft picks Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster.

— There are new roles for old run stoppers, specifically with Eric Reid moving closer to the line of scrimmage while a single-high safety (Jimmie Ward, if healthy) patrols the secondary.

Minnesota Vikings running back C.J. Ham (30) tries to break a tackle by San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Earl Mitchell (90) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Minnesota Vikings running back C.J. Ham (30) tries to break a tackle by San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Earl Mitchell (90) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn) 

— There is a new coordinator, for the third straight year, in Robert Saleh, whose first words to the media in April were: “Stopping the run is our number one priority. The way we align, our demeanor, the responsibility of the defensive players — we will stop the run on this defense.”

— Of course, no new defense is complete without new mottos: “EXTREME VIOLENCE!” and “All gas, no brakes!”

Remember how the old defense extremely allowed more rushing yards (165.9 per game) and more rushing touchdowns (25) than in any of the 49ers’ previous 70 seasons?



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