SANTA CLARA, Calif. — “Not good enough. Not good enough at all.”
That was Fred Warner’s assessment of a San Francisco 49ers’ defense that’s been sliding over the second half of the season and that’s been giving up a leaky 5.6 yards per carry in the playoffs.
Warner knows a similar performance won’t cut it against Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is 3-0 against San Francisco and who found a way to beat an even better 49ers unit four years ago in the Super Bowl.
“We rely on winning games on defense,” Warner said of the standard the 49ers have set in recent years. “Holding teams to minimal points, suffocating teams, dictating how the game’s going. And that hasn’t been the case the last two games.”
“Effort” was the buzzword on Thursday, the 49ers’ first practice since their comeback NFC Championship Game win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday. The team’s most outspoken defensive leaders, Warner and defensive end Nick Bosa, said that effort has been inconsistent and hasn’t been playoff caliber. Earlier in the week, head coach Kyle Shanahan went a step further when he said the defensive pursuit on two long Lions touchdown runs was as bad as it had been all season.
Many observers thought Shanahan was pointing a finger at the defensive linemen, some of whom seemed to be loafing on Jahmyr Gibbs’ 15-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter. Shanahan on Thursday clarified that the issue was all over the field on “about two to three” plays.
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“There were a few backside people who weren’t going and they were expecting someone else to make the tackle,” he said. “Whenever you’re expecting someone else to make the tackle, bad things happen.”
Inconsistent effort is unusual for the 49ers defense. Their ethos — especially along the defensive line — is based on aggression and relentlessness. More than that, the team was well-rested when the playoffs began. Indeed, that was the driving force behind securing the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye: The 49ers would be healthy, refreshed and ready for a furious push to the Super Bowl when the postseason resumed.
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It was reasonable to expect something similar to what happened after the regular-season bye. The 49ers limped into that one on a three-game skid and with Shanahan saying the defense looked particularly tired during a 31-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. They emerged from the bye on fire, throttling the Jacksonville Jaguars 34-3.
The 49ers have had other outstanding performances since then — a 42-19 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 13, for example — but have generally been trending downward. In Weeks 1 through 11 they ranked No. 5 in defensive EPA. They’ve fallen to No. 22 in that category since then, a span that’s included a season-ending injury to safety Talanoa Hufanga and a multi-game absence by Arik Armstead.
Fred Warner conducted a longer-than-normal pre-practice huddle today. Warner said earlier it was important to strike the right tone in practice today, especially for a defense that’s been underperforming of late … pic.twitter.com/dQB8SZsMAu
— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) February 1, 2024
Warner and Bosa said it was important to set the right tone in Thursday’s practice. Warner notably conducted a far longer pre-practice huddle than he normally does. Bosa said he planned to relay to teammates what it takes — “a different level of effort of intensity and unselfishness” — to win a Super Bowl.
He and then-teammate DeForest Buckner were particularly sharp in the game four years ago, and the defense held Mahomes and the Chiefs to 10 points through 3 1/2 quarters. The lesson that day, however, was that even 3 1/2 quarters of excellent play isn’t enough. Kansas City ended up winning 31-20.
“You have to play with the mindset that you’re the only guy out there at times,” Bosa said. “It’s something you have to rep. You don’t just turn it on and off when you’re a backside player and the play is 40 yards away from you. … It’s the mindset of just going and going and going. And that’s what we need to do.”
Warner, meanwhile, admitted he’s still haunted by the Chiefs’ comeback.
“Up by 10 points late in the game and I’m thinking, ‘Hey, we’re about to win us a Super Bowl,’” he recalled. “And (the lead) went pretty quick. And that scarred me for life. Now, to this day, it doesn’t matter if it’s regular season, preseason, playoff game — I never start getting excited until that clock hits zero.”
Odds & ends
• The 49ers practiced Thursday without tight end George Kittle (toe) and defensive tackle Arik Armstead (foot, knee). Shanahan declined to discuss the specifics of Kittle’s injury while Armstead’s is the same one he’s been dealing with since early December. Cornerback Ambry Thomas (ankle) and linebacker Oren Burks (shoulder) were limited in the session.
For the Chiefs, guard Joe Thuney (pectoral) and defensive end Charles Omenihu (knee) didn’t practice Thursday. Omenihu, who played for the 49ers last season and who forced a fumble on Sunday, tore an ACL later in the game and will go on injured reserve.
• Asked about Chiefs tackles Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor, Bosa had a short response: “They hold a lot.”
As 49ers fans will recall, Bosa appeared to be held on a deep-ball completion by the Chiefs in the previous Super Bowl matchup. The referee in that game, Bill Vinovich, will be in the same position for the Feb. 11 game.
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• The arrival of the respective team planes has become a Super Bowl media event. The Chiefs are expected to arrive in Las Vegas shortly after 5 p.m. PT Sunday while the 49ers should get in about an hour later. The teams are staying within a mile of each other in Henderson, Nev.
• Jed York said the 49ers are chartering additional planes that will carry alumni and staff — down to the team interns — to Las Vegas on the Friday before the game.
(Photo of Fred Warner: Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)