SANTA CLARA — When DeMeco Ryans was a young defense attorney in Alabama High School, the coaches insisted he had to appear in a movie.
“People would tell me if you want a scholarship, you have to show up in frames,” the 49ers defense coordinator said Wednesday. “It’s been my mentality since high school. It’s always about the effort, the mindset and the physicality of our guys and everyone buys that.
Ryans won a scholarship to Alabama from Jess Lanier High School in Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham. Preaching many of the same fundamentals, Ryans coaches the 49ers defense that has become one of the best teams in the NFL in an era when the most basic skills have become a lost art.
The 49ers (6-4) hope to continue that trend when they host the New Orleans Saints (4-7) game at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday.
Gone are the days when fighting in form was practiced to exhaustion. One-on-one training has given way to no-fall training, where defenders line up and do everything but actually att*ck.
Listen to any NFL broadcast and savvy analysts will complain about missed tackles.
However, general manager John Lynch, whose striking and tackling safety prowess earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was impressed by the 49ers’ ability to keep runners and receivers in their lanes.
Coach Kyle Shanahan brought the point home to Mexico City Sunday night ahead of the 49ers’ 38-10 victory, showing a video of his defensive performance in the previous week’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
“Our boys flew around and missed one att*ck the whole game,” Lynch told KNBR. “It was the best since we’ve been here. They didn’t do it by playing on their heels. They did it by chasing people.
This continued in the victory over the Cardinals, and the 49ers threw away the second half for the third game in a row.
Cornerback Charvarius Ward had 10 tackles, forgoing two early 17-yard pick-ups to DeAndre Hopkins, but knocking him down later with minor damage. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw had nine stops and Fred Warner had six, including two for losses.
Nine times have the 49ers stopped the Cardinals behind the scrimmage line.
Ryans used the acronym SWARM, which stands for “Special Work Ethic and Unbending Mindset.”
Warner, whom NFL Films analyst and KNBR regular Greg Cosell considers the best center back in the league, said the 49ers have bought Ryans philosophy.
“It’s about the culture, the standard,” Warner said. “When you put on our tape, it will look different because we all adopted the same mentality. We’re going to swarm football. This is not something that is easy to do or that people want to do on a down-in-down-out basis.
“It takes a lot of effort. It is hard. But it looks special.
Greenlaw said the key is to be disciplined about the task and then relax when the quarterback receives the ball.
“You play your technique and do your job early in the game by seeing what you know and reading it,” Greenlaw said. “Once the ball is caught, how are you going to execute the play? You get off the ball, it swarms and you play.
As strange as it may sound, Ryans believes that the gaming mentality allows players not to be bothered by the occasional smell because help is on the way.
“When you miss, it’s like you’re the center of attention,” Ryans said. “I like to take that mentality away from them. If you miss, you have a brother who will come clean up. The spotlight won’t be on you because other guys are coming.
As Greenlaw put it:
“It’s a matter of self-confidence. I have my brothers with me, let me go ahead and be aggressive and do what I need to play because I have 10 guys behind me.
According to Shanahan, this is not an exaggeration. The 49ers teams swarmed to the point where after shots in the end zone of defenders with the ball, Shanahan is able to identify any defender rushing to make a serve.
“Statistically, it looks good, and it looks good on tape,” Shanahan said. “I try to see how many times there are 11 people on screen, and that’s in almost every play.”
Tackling and swarm attitude are ingrained in the 49ers off-season and all defensive sessions, even when actual tackles are not allowed.
“We’re going to be a physical defense and the guys understand the style we’re going to play before we even put on the shin guards,” Ryans said. “Will it be hard? Yes, it will be hard. Coaches work hard every week to bring out that physicality in you, but when you have the right guys in the locker room who have that attitude, I don’t have to say much about it because you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you’re not physical in our defence.
The 49ers held a briefing that was closed to the media on Thursday and released an estimate of player participation if it was a full training session as required by the league.
There were no surprises. Defensive tackling Arik Armstead (foot/ankle) remains out of play, while defensive tackle Samson Ebukam (quadriceps, Achilles) and wide receiver Deebo Samuel (hamstring) were limited.
Left striker Trent Williams, who sat out Wednesday’s rest day, was listed as a full participant.
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