49ers’ defense thriving with lost art of tackling with Saints in deck

SANTA CLARA — When DeMeco Ryans was in his formative years as a high school linebacker in Alabama, coaches stressed upon him the need to show up on film.

“Folks would tell me, if you want a scholarship, you need to show up in the frames,” the 49ers’ defensive coordinator said Wednesday. “It’s been my mentality since high school. It’s always about effort, mindset and physicality of our guys and everyone is buying in.”

Ryans earned a scholarship to Alabama out of Jess Lanier High School in Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham. Preaching many of the same fundamentals, Ryans coaches a 49ers defense that has hit its stride as one of the top tackling teams in the NFL in an era where the most basic of skills has become a lost art.

The 49ers (6-4) hope to continue that trend when they host the New Orleans Saints (4-7) Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.

Gone are the days where form tackling is practiced to the point of exhaustion. One-on-one pit drills have given way to practices with no pads where defenders square up and do everything but make an actual tackle.

Listen to any NFL broadcast and veteran analysts will grouse about missed tackles.

Yet general manager John Lynch, whose prowess as a hitting and tackling safety earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has been impressed with the 49ers’ ability to stop runners and receivers in their tracks.

Coach Kyle Shanahan drove that point home in Mexico City Sunday night before the 49ers’ 38-10 win with film of the defensive performance in the previous week’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

“Our guys were flying around and missed one tackle the entire game,” Lynch told KNBR. “It was the best since we’ve been here. They weren’t doing it playing on their heels. They were doing it getting after people.”

It continued in the win over the Cardinals, with the 49ers posting a second-half shutout for the third straight game.

Cornerback Charvarius Ward had 10 tackles, giving up an two early 17-yard completions to DeAndre Hopkins but bringing him down with little damage thereafter. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw had nine stops and Fred Warner six, including two for losses.

Nine times the 49ers stopped the Cardinals behind the line of scrimmage.

Ryans has preached the acronym SWARM, which stands for “Special work ethic and relentless mindset.”

Warner, whom NFL Films analyst and regular KNBR guest Greg Cosell believes is the best middle linebacker in the league, said the 49ers have bought in to Ryans’ philosophy.

“It’s all about a culture, the standard,” Warner said. “When you turn on our tape it’s going to look different because we’ve all bought in to the same mentality. We’re going to swarm to the football. It’s not something that’s easily done or that people want to do on a down-in down-out basis.

“It takes a lot of effort. It’s hard. But it looks special.”

Linebacker Dre Greenlaw (57) brings down Rams tight end Tyler Higbee on Oct. 3 for the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

Greenlaw said the key is to be disciplined in terms of assignments then letting loose once the quarterback receives the ball.

“You play your technique and do your job at the beginning of the play, seeing what you know and reading it,” Greenlaw said. “Once the ball is snapped, how are you going to make the play? You get off the ball, swarm and make a play.”

Strange as it sounds, Ryans believes that mentality makes it possible for players to be unconcerned by the occasional whiff because help is on the way.

“When you do miss, it’s like there’s this huge spotlight on you,” Ryans said. “I like to take that mentality away from them. If you miss, you’ve got a brother coming to clean up. The spotlight won’t be on you because we’ve got other guys coming.”

As Greenlaw put it:

“It’s a confidence thing. I’ve got my brothers with me, let me go ahead and be aggressive and do what I’ve got to do to make plays because I’ve got 10 guys behind me.”

According to Shanahan, that’s no exaggeration. The 49ers have been swarming to the point where on end zone shots of ballcarriers, Shanahan can identify every defender rushing to make a play.

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