PHOENIX — At the beginning of this decade, the 49ers’ defense was anchored by the fierce duo of Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan believes his team might have something similar in DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford.
“You had Aldon Smith and Justin Smith. Those guys went very well together,” Shanahan said Tuesday at the NFL owners meeting. “I don’t know which one was more important to the other. They both played off each other well.”
The Smiths played together in San Francisco from 2011 to 2014. Over that four-season span, Justin Smith recorded 22 sacks and Aldon Smith racked up a whopping 44 — 33.5 of which were in his first two seasons.
Shanahan explained how Ford should fit in with Buckner on the defensive line.
“When you have a guy like DeFo playing the 3-technique and you got a guy outside of him that probably has the best first step in the league of just getting off the ball, that makes the tackle have to expand a lot more, which gives more space for Buck,” Shanahan said. “And the more space you can give Buck, the better he’s going to do.”
Since the 49ers acquired Ford in a trade with Kansas City, there has been an expectation of how he will complement Buckner, who had career-bests last season of 12 sacks, 17 tackles for a loss and 20 quarterback hits.
Ford also finished 2018 with career highs in 13 sacks, 13 tackles for a loss and 29 quarterback hits.
The 49ers have an abundance of defensive linemen who have played well on the inside but they have needed to get pressure from the edge. Ford could be exactly what the defense needs to bring the level of play up along the entire defensive line.
“Yeah, I think it will help Buck a lot,” Shanahan said. “I think it will help all our inside players. Buck’s been great for us. He played at an extremely high level last year and they way Buck is, just as a man, the way he takes care of himself, the way he works, he’s going to get better each year regardless. And when you add better people around him, that will always help too.”
The coaching staff has not decided if Ford will play on one side or the other. Shanahan envisions him playing in a variety of places as long as it maximizes his talents.
“I think they will play all over,” Shanahan said. “Buck plays on both sides. I don’t know exactly how we will do it with Dee Ford, whether we will put him on both sides or just leave him just left or right. But I do think he will move around.”
Shanahan explained how much more difficult it is to prepare for a defensive line that does not have set positions.
“From an offensive standpoint it’s harder for me when I don’t know where they’re going to be,” Shanahan said. “It’s harder to game plan it. But also from a defensive standpoint, sometimes guys are a lot better on one side than the other and so we got to figure that out.
“But there’s a schematic advantage to never knowing where the guys is but you don’t want to take away his top assets like that.”
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Shanahan said even if the numbers aren’t flashy, adding a player like Ford can change the outcome of a game.
“It puts pressure on the whole offense,” Shanahan said. “And it’s not just the pass rush. You need to add difference-makers anywhere. Even when those guys aren’t impacting the game to where a fan can see it, the entire offense feels it. The field gets smaller and there’s not as much space and that’s what you want to do.”