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49ers expect big things from pass rusher Dee Ford

SANTA CLARA - Is Dee Ford the stud the 49ers think he is?

This offseason, they traded a second-round draft pick in 2020 to the Kansas City Chiefs for Ford, a 28-year-old defensive end, then gave him a five-year, $85.5 million contract extension, because they think he can transform their defense.

Last season, the 49ers’ defense ranked 13th in yards allowed, a respectable ranking. But it also ranked 21st in third-down defense, 26th in red-zone defense, 28th in points allowed and dead last in takeaways.

It was a bad defense in general.

“We have a functional, sound scheme,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh explained during minicamp. “The way it’s built can keep yards at bay. When you start inserting playmakers like Dee Ford, now you get to your efficiency downs, like third down and red zone, where there’s more pressure being put on the offense to make quicker decisions, to fit balls in tighter windows, to do things out of their character. That’s where (Ford is) going to make the biggest difference. We should hopefully see a much more efficient defense.”

Ford recorded a career-high 13 sacks last season and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. And yet, the Chiefs didn’t offer him a long-term extension - they gave him the franchise tag and placed him on the trade block. Apparently, they had questions about how good he really is.

These are the questions Ford must answer next season:

1. Can Ford repeat his pass-rush production from 2018?

Ford’s five-season career has been up and down. In 2016, he recorded 10 sacks. But in 2015, 2016 and 2017 combined, he recorded just 7.5 sacks total.

“He’s starting to come into his own,” defensive line coach Kris Kocurek said. “Last year was a big year for him as a pass rusher.”

One of Ford’s victims was Joe Staley - Ford beat him for a sack Week 3. Ran right around him.

“I was 100% certain he was offside,” Staley said before OTAs. “He was that fast. But he just timed (the snap). He was right on it. In today’s game, what separates a lot of the great pass rushers from the guys who are average is that first step.”

The 49ers think Ford has one of the fastest first steps in the NFL. But it’s fast for a reason that may not translate to Santa Clara.

Nine of Ford’s 13 sacks came at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs play their home games. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL. Levi’s Stadium is one of the quietest.

At Arrowhead, opposing offenses can’t communicate verbally on the field, so they use a silent count to snap the ball. A guard turns his head around and receives a hand signal from the quarterback, then the guard taps the center and the center snaps the ball.

A silent count is easy for the defense to time. Plus, it puts the offensive tackle at a disadvantage. He can’t hear the quarterback, so he has to turn his head, watch the center snap the ball, then turn his head back as fast as possible and find the pass rusher. Or, the offensive tackle has to watch the pass rusher before the snap and react to him.

Either way, the pass rusher gets a head start during a decidedly short race to the quarterback.

Last season, nine of Ford’s 13 sacks came at Arrowhead, and four of those nine sacks were a direct result of the silent count. Ford either jumped the snap or the offensive tackle reacted too late.

Opposing offenses never use a silent count at Levi’s Stadium, because so many fans watch the games from the lounges. The field is relatively noiseless. The quarterback’s voice carries all the way to the press box eight stories up. Meaning Ford won’t have the same advantage he had in Kansas City.

And he may not have as many pass-rush opportunities, either. Last season, the Chiefs went into halftime with a double-digit lead seven times, while the 49ers had double-digit halftime leads only twice.

Ford may finish next season with eight or nine sacks rather than 13. If he’s really special, he’ll get his 13. To be determined.

2. Can Ford make ?DeForest Buckner a better pass rusher?

Even if Ford doesn’t reproduce his sack numbers from last season, he still can have a major impact on the 49ers’ pass rush.

Ford takes an extremely wide path to the quarterback - he typically attempts to run around the offensive tackle. This path creates space inside for defensive tackles to rush the quarterback.

“We’re licking our chops,” said DeForest Buckner, who recorded 12 sacks last season. “You see Chris Jones had a big year last year (with) Ford screaming off the edge.”

Jones is a defensive tackle for the Chiefs who recorded 15.5 sacks last season, largely because offenses were so concerned with blocking Ford. They usually tried to block Jones with one offensive lineman instead of two.

Teams have double-teamed Buckner since he entered the league in 2016. With Ford on the field, Buckner should see fewer double teams next season and his sack numbers should continue to rise. Big improvement all around.

3. Can Ford defend the run well enough?

Ford is small for a defensive end (6-foot-2, 252 pounds). Offensive tackles can push him around. Last season, the Chiefs gave up a whopping 6.62 yards per carry around the left end of their defense - the side Ford usually played. A big reason they traded him.

Meanwhile, the 49ers allowed just 4.01 yards per carry around the left end of their defense, because they have two terrific run defenders at defensive end - Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas. Inserting Ford for either of them on first or second down could hurt the 49ers’ run defense. But the 49ers may feel obligated to play Ford all three downs, because they’re paying him $17.1 million per season.

“His physicality on the edge as a run defender goes underappreciated,” Kocurek argued during OTAs. “Dee can also play the run. But the main thing is his pass rush. That’s where he butters his bread.”

The 49ers need Ford to slather his bread with butter, need him to rush the quarterback as well as possible. And the less they make him defend the run, the more energy he’ll have to rush the passer.

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