49ers hope defense gets boost from Jimmy Garoppolo addition

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, file photo, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) celebrates after their 15-14 win over the Chicago Bears in an NFL football game in Chicago. Garoppolo looks to follow up a successful first start for the 49ers with another this week against Houston. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

Charles Rex Arbogast

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — While the addition of Jimmy Garoppolo under center dramatically changed the look of the 49ers' offense on Sunday, it had a huge impact on the defense as well.

Garoppolo helped San Francisco to control the game by nearly doubling up the Bears in time of possession, 38:47 to 21:13, which meant the defense played a season-low 36 snaps while putting together one of its best performances of the year.

"I honestly felt like I could play another full game after that game," defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said.

Buckner is San Francisco's resident iron man. He led NFL defensive linemen in snaps as a rookie last season by playing more than 1,000 despite missing a game due to injury. Playing 26 on Sunday was welcomed after entering the week averaging 59, again near the top of the league.

The 49ers (2-10) came out of Chicago with their first road victory thanks to a balanced effort with Garoppolo moving the ball up and down the field. The offense logged 388 yards and converted 10 of 18 third downs to extend drives.

The defense allowed just 147 nets yards, the fewest since November 2012, and eight first downs, the fewest by any opponent since 2010. They were fresh in the fourth quarter, which helped them force a punt leading to Garoppolo's game-winning drive that ended with a field goal to pull out the 15-14 victory.

"It was awesome to be able to sit back and watch the offense go to work," defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "You don't get many opportunities at that. I don't care what team you play for. You just don't get opportunities to be able to be a spectator as much. So, it was pretty cool."

Salah is charged with turning around a defense that was among the worst in franchise history last season. The team has promising young talent starting with Buckner and linebacker Reuben Foster, who was named the league's defensive rookie of the month for November.

If the Garoppolo-led offense can replicate its performance this week against the Texans, it will give Saleh's unit another chance to make strides in its development as the season winds down. He said his defense had noticeably more energy in the second half against the Bears than any other game this season.

"It is contagious. When the offense is moving the ball you could hear our guys on the sideline," Saleh said. "It was the urgency at which they felt they needed to get the ball back for the offense because they were doing so well. It's a team game."

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Perhaps the most difficult task facing San Francisco's defense on Sunday is covering Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who's tied for the league lead with nine touchdown catches on top of 1,084 yards receiving. Another promising rookie, Ahkello Witherspoon, is looking forward to going against one of the game's best pass catchers.

"I like going against the best receivers, so this is my first opportunity to really go up against one who's known, who has been proven in this league. That's really what I'm excited for," Witherspoon said.

NOTES: Buckner was given Thursday's practice off, the team said. ... RT Trenton Brown (shoulder) was limited Thursday after not participating Wednesday. He was questionable for the game in Chicago after missing the previous loss to the Seahawks. ... S Adrian Colbert wore a non-contact blue jersey and was listed as limited after having thumb surgery during the Week 11 bye.

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