49ers defense challenged by Kyle Shanahan thinks it can improve

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SANTA CLARA — The 49ers defense has been a dominant force in 2022, but after Saturday’s 37-20 victory over the Washington Commanders, the group believes it has yet to reach its full potential.

The defensive unit ranks at the top of the league in most statistical metrics, including allowing an average of just 15.3 points per game, which is by far the lowest in the NFL. The Buffalo Bills are second, allowing 17.5 per game.

While it didn’t take away the win, Washington’s 20 points didn’t sit well with several 49ers defensive leaders, including halfback Jimmie Ward.

“I’m really proud of the guys,” Ward said after the game. “I gave up a cheap touchdown at the end. I did not like that. But I’m going to watch the movie and find out what I can do better in this play. Other than that, we ended up making more plays than them in the attack and we left with the victory.”

Fred Warner, who led the team with 13 total tackles, eight of which were solo, has now marked his fifth straight season recording 100+ tackles. The team captain believes there is still a lot of work to be done and sees stoppage as the main objective of every game.

The 49ers defense forced two turnovers on downs, including a goal-line stop early in the second quarter as Washington had four chances to enter the end zone from inside the 5-yard line. The Commanders came away from their 17-play, 79-yard drive empty-handed.

“I think throughout the game we had opportunities to really take them out,” Warner said. “I think back to that first half just playing more assignment sound and getting more hits in the running game, going out in the third and long.

“In the second half they got us on some deep balls. But still, I think we had opportunities to keep them out of the end zone. We have to do this. It is always a learning experience. You’re always growing, always trying to find ways to improve and finding ways to win. So let’s look at this carefully and we’ll be better about it.

It’s easy to argue that Nick Bosa is having the best season of his young NFL career, racking up two more sacks to set a new career-high 17.5, which also leads the league. He also had an additional takedown on Washington quarterback Carson Wentz on a two-point conversion that does not count as a sack.

The Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner said coach Kyle Shanahan still called the group during the week leading up to the Commanders match.

“He challenged the whole defense this week and I think we did a good job,” said Bosa. “He pointed out plays in the team meeting that, as an offensive coordinator mentality, sees openings in some plays. He chose four or five and that showed us that there are some holes at certain times that we need to shore up.”

Dre Greenlaw has been a key contributor to the defense during a Pro-Bowl-caliber season, although he was not selected for the event. He leads the 49ers with 118 tackles – 79 solo, three for a loss, as well as recording two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

Like his teammates, Greenlaw wants more of himself and the defensive unit going forward, knowing they have a lot more football ahead of them.

“We have a lot of room to improve,” Greenlaw said. “It always looks good on the scoreboard when you get the win, but you have to be hard on yourself as a team for us to be great and take that step. We have to stop them from scoring. When you allow them 20 points, you don’t like it. You have to do better.”

RELATED: Ranking the 49ers’ Offense and Defense in Victory over the Commanders

Coming off their eighth consecutive win on Saturday, the 49ers have an extra day to rest and prepare for their Week 17 matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders on New Year’s Day at Allegiant Stadium.

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