The 49ers defense has undoubtedly taken its lumps this year. No NFL team has allowed more points or yards in 2016; only two clubs have worse third down percentages. But with DeForest Buckner in tow, San Francisco has someone with the potential to be a game-changer on Sunday – and, eventually, become one of the top young defensive linemen in football.
"I think he's going to develop into that," head coach Dan Quinn said Wednesday. "He's got speed and length. So for the inside guys, that's a rare combination. Sometimes you have some big guys who can be real stout against the run, or a guy who's got enough length but maybe isn't strong enough to play down and dirty, where he's got the size to do both. That's a pretty rare guy. So I think in time he's going to turn into to be a really good player. His effort for a big guy is also, I think, one of the things that sets him apart."
Drafted seventh overall last spring, Buckner has indeed evolved into a well-rounded asset. He enters Week 15 with 39 tackles and 24 stops against the run – both of which rank first at his position, according to Pro Football Focus. What's more, his five sacks are the fourth-most among rookies; his 10 QB hits lead his team.
And after a two-sack, 11-tackle performance last Sunday vs. the Jets, Buckner's stock is trending up heading into San Francisco's contest in Atlanta.
"Buckner's play has been outstanding all year long," Niners head coach Chip Kelly said in a conference call with the Atlanta media. "I think he was second-leading tackler in the NFL of interior defensive linemen. He's got 65 stops as an inside guy. I've known Bucker for a while. I recruited him and I coached him in college (at University of Oregon) also. He's doing what I expected him to do. He's a tremendous player who's got a huge upside."
Buckner lines up on the left side of the offensive line, and based on where's he's typically slotted in Jim O'Neil's scheme, RG Chris Chester and RT Ryan Schrader should see a lot of the 6-foot-7, 300-pounder on Sunday. Schraeder has been faring particularly well of late, allowing just two sacks and one QB hit in his last 113 pass block snaps, per PFF.
"He's a long player. You just notice his length when you play against him," Schraeder said about Buckner. "He's just able to reach you from a farther distance. So I have to be more cognizant of his hands, where they're at, and I have to keep him off me whenever I line up with him, because tall and long guys like that – they can just grab you or pull you do.
Schraeder, who's also listed at 6-foot-7 and exactly 300 pounds, doesn't often face off against athletes of his stature. Such matchups may be tough for some of football's bigger O-linemen, but the Valdosta State product views them as favorable situations.
"I actually like playing tall guys because they're not as low to the ground," he said. "I don't mind it because I feel like I can use my length pretty well, and I can use my leverage well, and the taller they are, I think the easier that is."