Kawakami: The 49ers’ pass rush has disappeared, and so has their identity

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The NFL season is long, complicated, exhausting and habitually filled with terrors, but the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive line is supposed to be an All-Pro security blanket.

The 49ers’ defensive line is built to make everything secure and simple for this franchise. It’s supposed to set up the road to a Super Bowl. Or multiple Super Bowls. The 49ers’ defensive line, upon which so many draft picks and so many millions have been invested, is supposed to be where the whole thing begins and ends. It’s supposed to lead the way, set the tone, close it out and, if need be, cover up all weaknesses and absences.

The 49ers’ defensive line absolutely, positively is not supposed to be a weakness. During the length of the Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch era, especially since the arrival of Nick Bosa in 2019, it almost never has. The 49ers have poured a lot of resources into that unit to make sure of it.

But in the most shocking development of a relatively shocking 22-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis on Monday night, I think the most honest evaluation is that the 49ers’ defensive line not only got stuffed and outplayed, it probably was the most underwhelming element of the whole four quarters.

On Monday, Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams were out with injuries, and Dre Greenlaw and Christian McCaffrey were playing hurt (but quite effectively). The defensive line, though, was healthy. On Monday, Brock Purdy didn’t struggle nearly as much as he did last weekend in Cleveland, but he had one or two typical moments for a young QB on the road. In contrast, the 49ers’ defensive line is stocked with veterans. It should have enough talent to win blue-collar games like this almost by itself.

But Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins dropped back 45 times and wasn’t sacked once. He threw for 378 yards and made it look pretty easy. He converted third down after third down. He barely got touched. Even when defensive coordinator Steve Wilks decided to turn up the blitzing — which opened up gaping holes in the coverage — Cousins seemed mostly unbothered and kept on completing key passes.

And the notion that Wilks started blitzing so much because the defensive line wasn’t much of a presence on its own, well, that’s an entirely weird dimension of football for the 49ers.

What are the 49ers if they don’t have a roaring front four? Good question. I’m not entirely sure of the answer and I don’t think the 49ers are too sure, either.

“We didn’t have any sacks today and when you go against a quarterback like that you’ve gotta make him uncomfortable,” Shanahan told reporters after the game. “And he didn’t look too uncomfortable.”

Unimaginable with Bosa, Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead, Clelin Ferrell, Javon Kinlaw and the rest. Impossible with D-line coach Kris Kocurek barking out signals. Unfathomable matched against a Vikings’ offensive line that was banged up and hadn’t been too impressive so far this season.

And yet … the pivotal play of the game came when Wilks decided that he needed more than the front four to rush the passer. At the end of the first half, when, with just 17 seconds left, and the Vikings meandering in their own territory looking satisfied to go into the break with a 10-7 lead, Wilks called an all-out blitz that left Charvarius Ward alone on Jordan Addison in the deep middle of the field. Ward had him covered, it should be pointed out. It wasn’t a breakdown. But the blitz didn’t get to Cousins, he threw it deep, Ward got his hands on the ball but lost it to Addison, who, with no deep safety nearby, spun loose and jogged into the end zone for a stunning 60-yard touchdown.

No sack. No interception. No incompletion. No tackle. No good.

“That’s stuff that we’ll discuss throughout the week,” Shanahan said when asked about Wilks’ blitz call. “Obviously, I did not like the result.”

Bosa went sackless for the fourth game this season and has just 2.5 overall. That’s after registering a league-best 18.5 last season, then holding out through training camp and the preseason and only joining the team the week before the regular-season opener after signing a five-year, $170 million deal.

The 49ers only have 15 sacks on the season, on pace to collect 36 on the season. Baltimore leads the league with 29. Last season, the 49ers had 44 sacks, tied for 10th in the league.

So Wilks is blitzing. Shanahan has often encouraged his defensive coordinators to take calculated risks and didn’t criticize Wilks’ play call in that situation. The 49ers are blitzing more this season. The most nagging point is that the 49ers have to blitz more.

They don’t want to be that kind of team. But they can’t just let QBs sit back and fire away. And the larger problem is that they’re still not getting to the QB enough even when they’re blitzing.

So after their defense wasn’t enough to save the game when the 49ers’ offense got walloped in Cleveland two weekends ago, the 49ers’ defense was tossed and turned by the Vikings in another loss. And the 49ers are 5-2 with a short week before Sunday’s home game against the Cincinnati Bengals, who are coming off a bye.

“The NFL will humble you every step of the way and getting off to a 5-0 start, you kind of get that confidence that we are who we need to be,” Bosa said. “But the NFL does that. Good players, good schemes and we’re going to face another good team this week.”

What’s the solution? Lynch and Shanahan acquired defensive end Randy Gregory a few weeks ago and plopped him right into the rotation ahead of second-year man Drake Jackson, which might’ve been the first sign of some unease about the front four. Gregory has been OK. Ferrell got a QB hit Monday and is solid as the base-downs end opposite of Bosa. And the defensive-tackle rotation, led by Hargrave and Armstead, is fine.

Could the 49ers get Brian Burns from the Carolina Panthers by the Oct. 31 trade deadline? It’s hard to see how the 49ers could make that much of an upgrade on the line without trading away at least one future first-round pick (and then they’d have to figure out how to fit his salary), and I think they’re done doing that for now. Plus, they have other needs, including on the offensive line, cornerback and wide receiver if Deebo is out for much longer.

If the 49ers can snap out of this two-week funk and get back on the path to the No. 1 seed in the NFC and possibly the Super Bowl, it’s most likely going to be with the headliners they already have. It should be enough. Bosa hasn’t been bad so far this season, but he hasn’t wrecked offenses the way he did last season and Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt have done this season. Hargrave has been steady but hasn’t gotten to the QB much. Armstead has 0.5 sacks.

They’re all getting paid a lot. They’re all very talented. The whole defense revolves around them — the 49ers don’t have a lot of high-priced talent in the secondary because they count on the defensive front to pressure the QB into quick and wayward throws. The defensive backs aren’t supposed to have to cover double moves. They’re supposed to pounce on inaccurate, rushed passes. And if the passes aren’t rushed or inaccurate? That’s trouble for the 49ers.

The way out of this is the way the whole thing was conceived: Bosa, Hargrave and Armstead have to take over games and take over this season. The 49ers can’t try to reverse-engineer a great pass rush. They’ve either got one or they don’t. The manufacturing isn’t going to help things or create a new identity for this defense. Actually, as we all saw Monday, it’s probably only going to make things worse.

(Photo of Brian O’Neill and Nick Bosa: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

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