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BRADENTON, Fla. — Robbie Gould recently reached out to Joey Slye after the Panthers’ young kicker missed two extra points and a late-game, 28-yard field goal attempt in a 34-31 loss at New Orleans.

Gould, 37, spoke with the 23-year-old because they are members of a unique NFL fraternity that can go from celebrated to castigated quicker than you can say “wide right.”

“I think in the community that we’re in,” Gould said, “truthfully, no fan, no reporter, no family member can truly understand it.”

Yes, Gould, a 15th-year veteran, has been there before. Actually, he’s hanging out there right now.

On the heels of the best two-season stretch by a kicker in NFL history, Gould is enduring a nightmare year that’s included four long snappers, a quadriceps injury that sidelined him for three games, and as many missed field goals (eight) in 22 attempts as he had in his previous 106 tries entering 2019.

Last year, Gould, the sixth-most accurate kicker in league history, made 33 of 34 kicks and led the NFL in field goal percentage. This season, his percentage (63.6) ranks 34th of 35 qualified kickers.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan said his confidence hasn’t wavered in Gould, who missed three kicks (72 of 75) in his first two seasons with the team.

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“All those misses this year haven’t been totally his fault,” Shanahan said. “I know he’s had some that have been, but others have been other guys: Whether it’s the snapper, the hold, and things like that. We’ve had a couple blocked.”

Gould has seen two kicks blocked, three long-range misses (57, 55 and 52 yards) and missed a 45-yarder at rainy Washington in laughably poor field conditions.

Robbie Goul of the San Francisco 49ers prepares to kick a field goal to tie the game against the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 1.
Robbie Goul of the San Francisco 49ers prepares to kick a field goal to tie the game against the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 1.
Photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images
Still, after Gould requested a trade in the offseason while declining to sign the franchise tag, the 49ers opened their wallet because he’d established a standard of near-perfection. Gould signed a four-year deal that made him the league’s second-highest paid kicker. He has fully guaranteed base salaries totaling $7.5 million over the next two seasons.

“The season hasn’t been what you want for it to be or hope for it to be,” Gould said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do well down the stretch.”

What’s happened to Mr. Automatic? Gould pointed to a lack of continuity for some issues.

The 49ers’ longtime long snapper, Kyle Nelson, was suspended for the first six games and the 49ers used Colin Holba (two games), Jon Condo (one game) and Garrison Sanborn (three games) to open the season. In addition, rookie punter Mitch Wishnowsky has served as Gould’s new holder.

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Saints sought to gain an edge on the San Francisco 49ers by making aggressive decisions and digging deep into the playbook.

An inability to convert a 2-point conversion attempt in the first quarter, or a fake punt late in the third, came back to haunt the Saints in a dramatic 48-46 loss on Sunday. Yet quarterback Drew Brees said the Saints wouldn’t have changed their aggressive mindset if they had it to do again.

“You know you’re in that type of game, right? And we were going to play aggressive,” Brees said. “We’re going to take chances. We’re not going to make any excuses.”

Turns out, it was the 49ers who took advantage of the Saints’ inability to execute those plays — and even countered with some tricks of their own.

The risks started early for New Orleans.

After San Francisco’s Ahkello Witherspoon was penalized for unnecessary roughness for hitting Saints’ Jared Cook in the head on the tight end’s 26-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, Payton went for 2 from the 1-yard line instead of the extra point.

The conversion attempt failed when Taysom Hill was tackled behind the line of scrimmage.

Making matters worse, Cook was lost for the game with a concussion.

“It would have been nice to have him obviously,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of Cook, who scored New Orleans’ first two TDs. “I felt like he would have had opportunities and been able to complement everything we were doing.”

The biggest gamble for New Orleans came a few series later when, on fourth-and-18 from the San Francisco 45, Payton called for a fake punt.

Hill lined up where punter Thomas Morstead normally would, took the snap and threw deep down the sideline for Tre’Quan Smith. But the 49ers’ Tarvarius Moore was shoving Smith toward the sideline, preventing him from getting the ball, which does not constitute pass interference when the passing team is in apparent punt formation.

“It was just a good play by the defense,” Smith said. “He knew that you can get your hands on them and not have it be pass interference.”

It also didn’t help that running back Alvin Kamara, normally one of the Saints’ most dynamic and productive players, fumbled in the third quarter at the New Orleans 20. San Francisco’s DeForest Buckner recovered, setting up a Niners TD on a short pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to tight end George Kittle.

And when the 49ers gambled, the Saints were caught out of position.

Receiver Emmanuel Sanders took a lateral on a reverse and pulled up to throw, finding no Saints defender near running back Raheem Mostert, who made the catch and trotted to the end zone for a 35-yard score.

Later, the Niners set up a touchdown with an 18-yard gain on a play that began with a hand-off to Kyle Juszczyk, who then delivered an option pitch to Mostert.

“You decide on how many risky calls you want to keep doing based on how your defense is playing,” San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said. “But we knew we were going to come out early with that stuff, and their offense was scoring a lot, so we never felt like we should slow down with it.”

By the time the Saints had clawed back to take a 46-45 lead on Brees’ 18-yard touchdown pass with 53 seconds left, they needed to try another 2-point conversion for a three-point lead.

Brees’ pass fell incomplete, and shortly after, New Orleans’ defense allowed Kittle’s 39-yard gain after his short reception near the left sideline on fourth-and-2. A facemask penalty by safety Marcus Williams meant the Niners netted 53 yards on the play.

Robbie Gould connected on a 30-yard field goal soon after and the 49ers (11-2) left New Orleans with a victory that gave them a decisive edge over the Saints (10-3) in the race of top two seed in the NFC playoffs.

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Kyle Shanahan spoke to the media on Christmas Eve on playing the Seahawks this time around with Emmanuel Sanders and George Kittle, how well the 49ers safeties work together, Brunskill, and Beast mode. Check it out.

Opening comments:

“I don’t have to talk about injuries today, so I’m not going to. I’ll talk tomorrow. Go ahead.”

Is S Jaquiski going to practice today?

“I don’t have to talk about it today. I’m not giving them a day ahead of us, so legally, I’m allowed to not talk about it until tomorrow. You guys can guess when you watch individual or stretch.”

It’s supposed to be a big game, right?

“I mean, this is the first time that I’ve had eight days and the other team has seven, I think. It’s not about the game. This is the first time we’ve been in this situation. We’re practicing on a Tuesday and we’re playing on a Sunday, which we normally don’t do. Since we have Christmas this week, we’re going to have that as a bonus day. [Vice president of communications] Bob [Lange] let me know that rule, so I’m going to take advantage of it.”

So, the rule is, even if you do practice, you don’t have to–?

“Yeah, we don’t have to give a designation until Wednesday. If he’s wrong on that rule, he’s paying my fine.”

Is QB C.J. Beathard back with the team?

“No, he’s not. I talked to him yesterday. They’re still working through a lot of stuff, obviously. C.J., I told him definitely, he didn’t ask, but I told him make sure he doesn’t come back this week. He’s got to be out there with his family and stuff, especially with Christmas this week. Whenever he’s ready is when is the time he should come back, whenever that is.”

This is more of a roster-type question, but would the NFL allow like a Commissioner’s exemption for such a thing if you needed that roster spot?

“I don’t know. I’m not sure. Yeah, I don’t know. You could ask them for me, though. I would appreciate that.”

How did he seem to be doing?

“As good as you can be. He was strong and tried to tell me the information that’s going on out there, what they’re working through and trying to find the messed-up person who did this. I think that’s their main focus right now.”

What was your reaction when the Seahawks signed RB Marshawn Lynch?

“Not much. I saw the backs they lost, so you knew they were going to sign someone. They signed a good one. I know Marshawn will come in and he’ll be ready regardless of how much time he’s had off. Marshawn’s a competitor, he’s a battler, so I think it was smart of them.”

They obviously have Seattle Seahawks RB Robert Turbin and Marshawn, neither of whom have played football in a year. I realize you understand what Marshawn’s done, but what kind of challenge is that and how unique would it be if they were able to actually do well in this game?

“It is a huge challenge. It depends on how much those guys have been working out and stuff like that. I do think it’s a little different with the running back position. There’s a lot that goes into people understanding the scheme and the game plan and everything, but you can use a running back a lot easier just depending on if you’re handing him the ball and he needs to run. So, you can get guys up to speed a lot faster in that way. The rest will be how much they’ve worked out, which keeps them in shape. No one’s in football shape. I don’t think those guys are planning on any single guy just carrying the load the whole game. The football shape and how they react will probably be more of an issue for them the next week than the first week.”

How much emphasis this week do you put on managing the emotions of your team leading up to this game?

“A little bit. You know how excited everyone is, you know how excited they’re going to be. This is definitely a week you don’t have to try at all to get your team up for the game. It’ll be the same thing for them. Just the times I’ve been in this situation in the past, it’s extremely fun to coach. You have everyone’s attention, everyone is completely into it. No stone goes unturned by anyone. You don’t have to push anyone on that. Everyone’s going to be locked in and that’s all you can do. That’s what you try to tell guys. You’re going to be excited to play, you’re going to work as hard as you can, that’s all you can control. Be prepared and then just cut it loose.”

What was it about DL Anthony Zettel that made you make that roster move?

“Just I know our personnel department really liked the tape he’s put out. I know [defensive line coach Kris] Kocurek had a history with him. Just with some of the injuries we have there and stuff, we have been looking for some more depth and everything. With our personnel department liking him and Kocurek having a history, it was a pretty easy decision.”

Obviously, a lot is at stake for both you and the Seahawks this week, but how important is it for a West Coast team to avoid having to play three straight road playoff games back to back?

“I’ve seen it go every way. I’ve seen teams clinch homefield advantage and have a Bye week and I’ve seen that completely backfire on that team. I’ve seen people have to win three in a row the hard way and they rally together and they just do it. You never know what should’ve happened until the end of it. I do know, though, if I had to pick, I would much rather only have to play two games than three games. That’s how we look at it, but besides that, it can go either way.”

You have played a few big games already to this point and you mentioned that you don’t have to do much to get the guys up for this one, but is there a challenge in keeping the message fresh or finding something new to say at this point in the season for a big game?

“No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I have to come up with anything. If I do, it’s very obvious I’m coming up with something. This situation is what it is. You guys know that. My wife knows it, my kids know it, all our players know it. Anyone who pays attention to football knows it. Everyone’s going to be amped up.”

How helpful is it to have a guy like CB Richard Sherman who’s been in so many big games and in a locker room with so many guys who haven’t been in that? How have you seen that kind of develop this year and going into this one?

“I think that’s huge. Players, coaches, anybody who has some experience, you always want to lean on people with experience. It doesn’t mean they’re always, everyone with experience, is the right guy to, but talking about Sherm and stuff, he’s very even keel in how he talks to these guys. He’s pretty wise in that area. I think it’s helped us throughout the year being able to talk to guys like that. When you start out, I forget how we started out, 8-0 or whatever it was, talking about how long the year is and that this doesn’t mean anything and what to expect 10 games from now and things like that. That’s where we’re at and people have been through that before. It’s been good to talk throughout the year and now we’re kind of in that situation that people have been in before, like Sherm and people. Now we’re in the exact situation we’ve been talking about for a while.”

Aside from the running back situation, how have the Seahawks changed since November 11th when you faced them?

“I don’t think much at all. I know the last couple of weeks they’ve had [Seattle Seahawks DE Jadeveon] Clowney out and I know their safety’s been out and their corner. Expect to get at least two of those back this week, so to me, they haven’t changed much at all on defense. And offensively, they’re missing their running backs, they’re bringing two new ones in and they don’t have their left tackle. It’s similar to how we played a ton of games this year. I know there’s a lot with injuries as there is with everyone, especially when they just happen, but I think that’s part of football and I don’t see a big difference in this game than the last game.”

How challenging is the first start in Seattle for a quarterback? What unique challenges will QB Jimmy Garoppolo face this Sunday?

“I think the main thing with Seattle is just to know how loud it is. Everyone’s played in loud stadiums and that’s usually the loudest. You’re not going to be able to hear. What I can say to Jimmy is it’ll be exactly like New Orleans was. I’ve been in New Orleans a bunch, but New Orleans was different. The last time we were there was the loudest I’ve ever been anywhere. Last time in New Orleans was tied with how Seattle is, so it’ll be very similar to that and I thought he handled himself well there and I expect him to do the same thing in Seattle.”

He used a wristband with a numbering system. Do you use that only in the loud environments?

“No, we’ve been using it all year. Just allows us to be a lot more wordy and do a lot more things and not have to stress about it.”

What do you see out of their defense? Historically the Niners have had trouble scoring up there so what is it about the scheme that carries over that makes it so challenging outside of the noise?

“I think one, over the 10-year span they’ve had as good of a 10-year run defensively as probably anyone in the history of football. I think everyone’s struggled to score on them regardless. Then you add in the elements of their stadium and everything where you can’t hear the cadence, they’re built pass rush first and how much they get off and attack the quarterback. When you can’t use cadence and you’re going against a very skilled team with a pass rush that’s extremely hard. Not to mention they’ve had a good quarterback that whole time who doesn’t turn it over a lot, can always make the plays at the end. They’ve had kind of the perfect set up for a winning formula and I think that’s why they’ve been as successful as any team over this decade.”

I think there’s only a couple guys on the team, maybe one active right now, who was there the last time you won in Seattle, but a lot of people in the building have been here during that whole time. Do you sense organization-wide, a frustration about not being able to win up there since 2011?

“No, I honestly didn’t even remember that until I read his [vice president of communications Bob Lange] notes before I came in here so I was prepared for you guys to ask that. No, I don’t think our team thinks like that. Our guys haven’t been here that long. I don’t think players get caught up in that stuff much. We know the team we’re going against, we saw them earlier this year. We get to study them on tape and we know what it’s like to play in a very tough environment and that’s what it’s going to be. We’re playing a good team that we know well and we know it’s going to be in a tough environment. What’s happened in the past or what’s going to happen in the future has nothing to do with the three and a half hours on Sunday.”

Nothing about OL Daniel Brunskill’s past coming into this year suggested he’d be good. At what point did you know? Was it training camp or was it not really until he had to start in a regular game?

“You start to notice in training camp just with how they move and stuff and how they get better each week. But, I understand the question because he was number 61 for me for a while, what is he now? Now he’s 60, he was 61 in training camp though. Then you see they start to make more plays, you start to notice them. You bring 90 guys to OTAs, especially when the last place he was, was the AAF. I didn’t study any AAF tape, we have our personnel guys who do that. They brought him in and he started to jump out. About half way through OTAs, just the consistency. Everyone starts out bad, but then just how they get better. Guys have a certain skill set to have the ability to do it and that’s what our guys look for. Then it usually comes down to what they’re made of, how tough are they? How smart are they in terms of applying their mistakes and getting better from each thing? He was so much better in training camp than he was in OTAs and then we started to notice him in the games, not making mistakes and his guy didn’t make the play much and when that happens our eyes notice him a lot more. That’s why he ended up earning a spot on this team.”

Lynch is obviously not in great football shape. But as a coach, can you imagine a scenario where if general manager John Lynch came to you and said, ‘hey, X player is on the street. We need a guy like this. He’s a legend. He’s going to get the fans fired up. He’s going to get the players fired up.’ Is there any juice that a guy like that, even if he’s not in shape, can provide for a team and a stadium to make a difference in a game like this?

“Yeah, to a degree, but no one is going to make a decision just off of that. If we could dress as many people as we wanted for a game, then we would, but I’ve lost two running backs before the game started before and had to go with one the whole game, just in pregame warmups. You can’t just have guys out there for those reasons. I know they wouldn’t have him out there if they didn’t think he could be effective. You know he’ll get everyone pumped up and things like that because of what he’s done there for their fans. Once the game starts, then it’s all about the game. He’s a good player so when he makes plays, that will pump everyone up. That’s what we’ve got to make sure to not let him do.”

Seattle had a challenging game last week. How much do you take from that film and was it more fluky for that game?

“Not really. It was just like us versus Atlanta. Every game in the NFL is real hard to win. Very hard. Then you go against a team who’s got some players on it, some speed. It looks like the defense slowed them down. They got a quarterback who can run around and make plays and when he went out, the other guy came in and did it. Every game in the NFL is tough, so I don’t put much into that.”

Jaquiski Tartt and DB Jimmie Ward have been teammates since high school. When they’re on the field together, do you see that communication? Do you see that understanding between them and do they work well together?

“Yeah, I think Tartt likes to talk out there and communicate with everyone. I don’t think it’s because they went to high school together. I think it’s like that with everyone out there. Jimmie is more of a silent assassin and Tartt is more of the communicator out there. [S] Marcell [Harris] is a little bit more of a silent assassin also, but the more he’s out there, the more experience he gets, the more he does communicate. I think I’ve been noticing that each week getting better and better.”

Has that been an issue?

“Anytime that there’s a mistake in a game, that’s why people motion and do all that stuff because you’ve got to run over there and change everything up when someone gets to a stack split and guys do have to communicate. Lots of the time, especially when it’s at home, you can’t hear because their crowd is cheering when the defense is out there. Sometimes you’ve just got to know. Yeah, that always is an issue. It’s not because one guy is doing really bad at it, but usually when something happens in the secondary, besides someone just getting beat in man-coverage, usually it’s a communication issue.”

Last time you played them without TE George Kittle and WR Emmanuel Sanders was out most of that game. With those guys back, what’s the difference in your offense?

“We’ve got two guys who make a lot of plays. The more guys you’ve got out there who can make plays, the better chance it gives you. We’re definitely pumped to have those guys back. I think our tackles are a lot healthier now also. We’re missing our center, which is a huge loss. We’ll see how it goes with [OL Mike] Person this week, but you never know. Each game is different with injuries and stuff. I know they’ve got some and we’ve had some throughout the year, but that stuff’s not going to matter come Sunday.”

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Christmas time is one of the best times of the year. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most lonely. For 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, it’s a time for giving back.

Over the years, Sherman and his wife, Ashley Moss, have made sure families in the San Jose area were not without something.

Moss said at the beginning, when Sherman was with the Seahawks, they helped one family — then six, now — 174.

“It’s always been a time where it’s about family and community for me, and not just immediate blood family, just everybody, bringing people together,” Sherman told The Sacramento Bee’s Chris Biderman. “So I understand how much joy and how much happiness it can bring people. I just want to spread that.”

Sherman’s Foundation teamed up with Redemption Church to seek out families in need. This year’s focus of the gifts was of the home variety: Gift cards to use toward furniture and grocery stores.

“I think people take pride in their homes and sometimes circumstances don’t allow you to have it the way you want,” Sherman said. “And we thought we could help give people a little more freedom in terms of how they dress up their house, at least give them a nice bed, some clothes, some pots and pans.”

Sherman was joined by a dozen of his teammates to take photos with the families and assist with loading bags of gifts into their cars.

[RELATED: Jersey swaps signify respect, friendship and goodwill]

It was a special moment for the five-time Pro Bowler.

“They were crying, their mom was going crazy because they didn’t have anything on their Christmas tree.”

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The whole Emmanuel Moseley-Ahkello Witherspoon situation is a product of a luxury the 49ers have at a very difficult cornerback position. Witherspoon had entered on the heels of a woeful sophomore campaign after a first season which inspired optimism. Moseley lost his only chance to start at corner in 2018 when he was injured on a special teams play in Week 9 against the Oakland Raiders.

It would be an understatement to say there was some uncertainty about the position when the year began. Now, there is still uncertainty, but it’s not about whether Witherspoon would be capable or whether Jason Verrett could replace him. It’s about whether Moseley, who wasn’t on anyone’s radar but the 49ers’, is too good to be benched.

What’s with Witherspoon’s timeline?
This has all arisen because of a nagging foot and quad injury Witherspoon has been dealing with.

He proved the point that players should never be trusted to give medical self-assessments when he was first injured in Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, saying he expected to be back for the 49ers’ Monday night game against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5.

Instead, it was revealed to be a foot sprain, with a timeline of “at least a month,” followed by two setbacks. That combination saw Witherspoon out for Weeks 3 through 10, with an abbreviated return in Week 11, and his first extended playing time in Week 12.

Here is a breakdown of the Witherspoon timeline before Week 10: Head coach Kyle Shanahan said he’d have a chance to play in Week 8 against the Carolina Panthers, before revealing a setback that pushed the expectations back to Week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks. That timeline came with confidence of a return against Seattle, but another setback, in the form of a quad strain, pushed Witherspoon back again.

Then, Shanahan said that Witherspoon would need three good days of practice to start in Week 11 against the Arizona Cardinals, but the 49ers mainly held walkthroughs, and so Witherspoon, despite telling KNBR he was “good, ready to go,” was limited to just six defensive snaps and 14 on special teams against Arizona. Shanahan said on Monday that the 49ers’ limited practices didn’t give Witherspoon a chance to play.

“Ahkello wasn’t able to get a full week of practice in,” Shanahan said that Monday. “We weren’t going to throw Ahkello out there without covering a receiver full speed in about seven weeks, unless we could get three full days of practice in and we walked through about 88 percent of our reps that week. We walked through on Wednesday and Friday, Thursday with two full-speed practice. So, without getting the right amount of practice time in, it really wasn’t much of a decision.”

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh expressed confidence about Witherspoon ramping up last week prior to the 49ers’ game against the Green Bay Packers. He said the team had finally gotten back to a more normal practice routine, not affected by Monday or Thursday night scheduling.

“For Ahkello to have yesterday, today — got to go see the tape — tomorrow, to put in three great days of practice where it looks like he’s knocking off the rust, he looks like he’s got his feet under him and he looks like he did before he got injured,” Saleh said. “Those are the decisions that coach [Shanahan] is looking at and I’m trying to help him out with too.”

However, Saleh also pointed to the fact that Moseley had “proven that he’s a starter in this league, without question,” and that it wasn’t a sure thing for Witherspoon to start.

Was that the plan?
Moseley told KNBR last week that he found out the morning of the Cardinals game that he would start, and the same situation took place yet again last Sunday, with defensive backs coach Joe Woods letting him know on Sunday how the team planned to use him.

He played the entirety of the first quarter before Witherspoon started in the second quarter and remained in for the rest of the game aside from a calf cramp he suffered in the second half.

Shanahan said after the game that the plan was and still is to bring Witherspoon back incrementally, but said he believes he’s “about a week away” from returning as the out-and-out starter. An ankle injury to Emmanuel Moseley (45 defensive snaps, 56 percent, plus 10 special teams snaps) also played a factor in Witherspoon’s playing time (49 defensive snaps, 61 percent, none on special teams).

Still, as those snap counts show, Moseley was on the field for more plays than Witherspoon.

“We’re still just trying to ease Akhello back in. Akhello had a pretty good week of practice,” Shanahan said. “Still thought he was about a week away to get his starting job back. It’s a matter of time before he does get that. We planned on putting Akhello in a couple series each half. We knew when this day ended that he was going to get a couple series and then E-Man, I think his ankle is a little bit sore. On special teams, I forget what happened, he never had to come out, but he got a little bit banged up and when we gave Akhello his role that we planned to put him in, he was feeling better. We just kept him in.”

On Monday, Shanahan added that Moseley had suffered an ankle sprain the week prior, something which did not affect his participation in practice, according to the 49ers’ injury report. Despite suggesting that Week 13 against the Baltimore Ravens would be the week Witherspoon starts again, he pumped the breaks on that, saying a similar situation to last week could unfold. It would require perfect clarity on both players’ health, which likely won’t come until game time.

“Yeah, I see something similar,” Shanahan said. “Like I’ve said, Ahkello is our guy and once he gets fully back there, then I definitely think he’ll give us the best chance to win and he’ll be out there the most. Moseley’s also done a hell of a job in showing this league that he’s a real good player that plays at a starter level. So, that’s not a decision that you make until it’s without a doubt clear.”

Moseley confirmed to KNBR that the plan was to rotate with Witherspoon, but Witherspoon’s outstanding play was a factor in his extended run: “It just so happened, Spoon went in there and played phenomenal.”

The situation isn’t new to Moseley, who said he rotated with a pair of other corners, Shaq Wiggins and Justin Martin, at the University of Tennessee.

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Richard Sherman’s childhood home was a local hub for the holidays.

“Sometimes we would have friends over and teammates, and they’d stay for a week, week and a half. And people would literally spend Christmas at our house and not at their house at times,” Sherman said.

Those holidays spent growing up in Compton in the heart of Los Angeles County set the foundation for Sherman’s giving spirit that has remained an important part of his life away from football. The San Francisco 49ers’ Pro Bowl cornerback has prioritized Christmastime to reach out to those in need since he entered the NFL. But it began on a modest scale.

“We started with one,” said Ashley Moss, Sherman’s wife, recounting families Sherman helped earlier in his career as a member of the Seattle Seahawks. “Then we had six.”

This week, that number of families grew to 174. The family bought roughly $100,000 worth of gifts for families in need that were distributed at San Jose’s Redemption Church on Monday.

“It’s always been a time where it’s about family and community for me, and not just immediate blood family, just everybody, bringing people together,” Sherman said. “So I understand how much joy and how much happiness it can bring people. I just want to spread that.”

Filling a need
Sherman’s Blanket Coverage Foundation partnered with Redemption Church to identify families that needed help this Christmas. The church is located near the Alviso neighborhood, just north of Levi’s Stadium on the other side of Highway 237, where the sprawl of tech companies and apartment complexes has not reached.

Alviso is one of the few remaining low-income communities in the region. Developers have avoided Alviso because it is 13 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the Bay Area, while one of the largest buildings is a waste plant where garbage and pollution contaminate the surroundings.

On Monday, a small parking area behind the church was lined with 174 individually marked bags of gifts for mostly Alviso families in need, who were identified by the church through reaching out to local community centers, libraries and schools.

Families were given forms to fill out to say what they wanted most this Christmas. Moss spearheaded the operation with Sherman’s help, and Blanket Coverage came through and delivered items at an event hosted by the church Monday.

The focus of the gifts was utility. Families were given gift cards for grocery and furniture stores, so they could purchase mattresses and bedroom sets rather than sleeping on floors, and dining room tables for family meals.

“I think people take pride in their homes and sometimes circumstances don’t allow you to have it the way you want,” Sherman said. “And we thought we could help give people a little more freedom in terms of how they dress up their house, at least give them a nice bed, some clothes, some pots and pans.”

Children were given bicycles and school supplies. Expecting mothers were gifted car seats. Many of the recipients were Spanish speakers who thanked Sherman with hugs and smiles while asking for pictures.

One man was brought to tears because he was given a fruit picker, which he was not expecting because of its $50 price tag at a local hardware store.

“It was the one thing that the man of this family wanted that he just couldn’t afford,” said Jazzlyn Zepeda, who is with the church who helped organize the event with Moss and Sherman. “And Ashley ended up getting the fruit picker for him, and he showed up and did not expect to get it at all. He showed up and saw it, and he literally started crying.”

Said Moss: “If somebody’s asking for that, they must really want it and really need it. And then out here, it could be an opportunity for a job or a business, so we try to help in those ways.”

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The importance of utility has been an ethos of Sherman’s foundation since its inception in 2013. Its initial focus was to help students in low-income areas with school supplies necessary for success. The initial operating budget started at $50,000, and it has since raised $1.5 million that has helped some 75,000 students.

Since August, Blanket Coverage has provided low-income schools and roughly 2,500 students with school supplies and backpacks. Additionally, Sherman recently donated $32,733, Moss said, to relieve lunch debt for children in Tacoma, Washington, and South Bay school districts.

Sherman was recently named the 49ers’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, one of the most prestigious honors in the NFL, given to players for their excellence on the field and in the community.

At least 12 of Sherman’s teammates showed up to Monday’s event to take pictures with families and help load bags of gifts into their cars, including defensive backs Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams, Jimmie Ward, Emmanuel Moseley, Marcell Harris, Antone Exum Jr. and Dontae Johnson, and receivers Deebo Samuel and Jordan Matthews.

It was the players’ off day ahead of the biggest game of the year this Sunday on the road against the Seattle Seahawks, which will determine the winner of the NFC West and give San Francisco a No. 1 seed with a victory.

One player said he had never been to an event put on by a teammate at that scale, illustrating the effect Sherman has had on the team’s younger roster.

“I think everybody wants to help. I think everybody has a giving spirit and really wants to give back. They don’t know how,” Sherman said. “And I tell them, it doesn’t have to be a huge event like this.”

It made Sherman remember when he first began working with a community center in Seattle before he was known as one of the best cornerbacks of his generation.

“They were talking about these families and explaining the stories to me, and I was like, ‘How can I help? I don’t want these families to just be starving.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, they haven’t slept in a bed in years,” Sherman said. “So I went and bought a bunch of stuff for families and went and packed Ashley’s car and we took them to their address and they were unbelievably grateful. They were crying, their mom was going crazy, because they didn’t have anything on their Christmas tree.”

Though his Christmas tree has always had gifts, Sherman still remembers those that have nothing.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Linebacker Fred Warner scored touchdowns twice during his BYU career.

He added a touchdown at the pro level Saturday, and the play helped the San Francisco 49ers stay in the chase for the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed.

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Just before halftime, Warner stepped in front of the intended receiver — running back Malcom Brown — and intercepted a Jared Goff pass, then returned it 46 yards for a touchdown.

That gave the 49ers their first lead in a game they trailed 14-3 and 21-10 early before rallying for a 34-31 win over the Los Angeles Rams.

“Do your job, that’s all that was. Man coverage, I got the back. I hung up, and he threw it to me, that’s it,” Warner said during the NFL Network postgame show.

The second-year linebacker had another solid game, finishing with 11 tackles (eight solo) and a pass deflection as San Francisco improved to 12-3 on the year.

“Fred makes a huge play — pick-six, the first pick of his career. It’s a pick-six in a big game,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said in his postgame presser.

#NinerGang that’s how we do. @fred_warner pic.twitter.com/pGIlpKOkTp

— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 22, 2019
Sherman was impressed with the performances of his teammates across the board in a critical late-season game.

“That’s something you appreciate, you appreciate guys understanding the moment and not panicking. They’re playing great football, and they’re stepping up to the challenge,” he said.

With the win, the 49ers set up a scenario where a victory over Seattle in next week’s regular-season finale would give San Francisco the No. 1 seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

“I think it’s safe to say when this coaching staff took over, this is exactly the moment that they dreamed of,” Warner said. “This couldn’t be a better position that we’ve been put in and all we’ve got to do is go get it now. It’s all on us.”

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The Seahawks will host the 49ers at CenturyLink Field next Sunday, Dec. 29, at 2:25 p.m. MST. Seattle beat San Francisco 27-24 in their first matchup this season.

“We’ve got eight days to get ready. It’s going to a hostile environment. I can’t wait,” Warner said.

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SANTA CLARA — The 49ers needed two wins in their final two regular-season games to reach their goal of earning homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

Before the winner-take-all showdown against the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers had to take care of business Saturday night against the Los Angeles Rams.

It was not easy — far from it, in fact.

“You try not to look ahead,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said after the 49ers’ 34-31 victory over the Rams at Levi’s Stadium. “I thought we had to win this game no matter what.

“Now, winning this, you don’t have to worry about anything. Now we’ve got one game here left in our season before the playoffs. (We) got eight days to get ready for it and we’re pumped about that.”

Here are the 49ers’ grades from their Week 16 victory over the Rams:

Rushing Offense
The 49ers’ raw rushing numbers were not bad at all. In fact, the 49ers averaged 5.2 yards per rushing attempt.

But the 49ers did not have a consistent running attack that enabled them to pick up first downs and control the clock.

Raheem Mostert continues to be the 49ers’ top back. He gained 53 yards on 11 rushing attempts. He had a 19-yard touchdown run to keep his streak alive with five consecutive games with a rushing touchdown.

Tevin Coleman added 33 yards on five rushing attempts. And wide receiver Deebo Samuel check in with 28 yards on three carries. Matt Breida has fallen out of favor and did not have a rushing attempt.

Grade: B

Passing Offense
The passing game was a mixed bag for the 49ers. For most of the game, the pass protection had difficulties against the Rams’ pass rush. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw two interceptions and was under pressure most of the game. He was sacked six times.

But when the 49ers needed it, Garoppolo and the passing game came through in a big way. Garoppolo completed 16 of 27 pass attempts for 248 yards and one touchdown.

Garoppolo led the 49ers on two late go-ahead drives. He capped one drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end George Kittle.

Then, with the score tied in the closing minutes, he twice converted third-and-16 passes to Kendrick Bourne and Emmanuel Sanders. The second of those was a 46-yarder to Sanders to set up the winning points.

Grade: C-plus

Rushing Defense
The 49ers did not allow Todd Gurley and the Rams running game to be any kind of factor. Gurley had just 48 yards on 15 rushing attempts, though he did score two touchdowns.

Linebackers Dre Greenlaw led the 49ers with 13 tackles, while Fred Warner added 11 tackles. Richard Sherman, Kentavius Street, Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner each had a tackles for loss,
Grade: B-plus

Passing Defense
Unlike the first 49ers-Rams meeting in October, L.A. quarterback Jared Goff was not affected too much by the pass rush. This time, he did a very good job of moving the pocket and of throwing the ball away any time the rush got close to him.

Nick Bosa got some consistent pressure and forced two incomplete passes with his pressure, but the 49ers did not register a sack. In fact, the 49ers have just three sacks in the team’s past four games.

Fred Warner supplied one of the plays of the game when he intercepted Goff at the sideline and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown in the closing minute of the first half.

That play helped balance out what was an otherwise strong game for Goff, who completed 27 of 46 pass attempts for 323 yards. His touchdown passes to Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks both came with cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in coverage.

Grade: B-minus

Special Teams
This might have been the best game of the season for special teams, which began on a high note with Richie James’ 81-yard kickoff return to set up the 49ers’ first points of the game.

Of course, the evening concluded with Robbie Gould’s game-winning 33-yard field goal as time expired.

Punter Mitch Wishnowsky had a very good game, as he averaged 43.6 net yards on five punts.

Grade: A

[RELATED: 49ers beat Rams for Beathard]

Overall
The 49ers had plenty of problems on offense and defense throughout the game. The Rams had solid plans on both sides of the ball, and they made it difficult for the 49ers, to be sure.

But the 49ers made enough plays on defense, offense and special teams to pick up this crucial victory and set up the biggest regular-season game the 49ers have played in many, many years.

With all the emotion of the day, this was huge. Quarterback C.J. Beathard’s brother, Clayton, was the victim of a fatal stabbing in Nashville early Tuesday morning. Kittle called it the “toughest game” he has ever had to play in his career.

The 49ers did what they had to do to win. And that’s all that matters.

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Don’t think ahead to the 49ers’ season-finale showdown against the Seattle Seahawks, a game that could determine which team wins the NFC West and earns a bye week in the playoffs.

The 49ers first have to beat the Saints in New Orleans.

If the 49ers lose this game, that season-finale showdown against the Seahawks may not matter, because the Seahawks might have won the division already.

The 49ers need to win this weekend. But they’re 2½-point underdogs, and they’re playing a Saints team that went into Seattle with their backup quarterback and beat the Seahawks by six points. The same Seahawks team that beat the 49ers by three points in Santa Clara.

The 49ers will need to play their best game of the season to beat the Saints. Here are five keys to victory.

1. A solution to stop Saints running back Alvin Kamara: The 49ers have a clear path to winning.

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The Saints’ starting left guard, Andrus Peat, will not play, and their starting left tackle, Terron Armstead, might not play, either. He’s questionable. The Saints offensive line is banged up. Their quarterback, Drew Brees, is stationary, a standing target. And the 49ers defensive line might be the best in the NFL. If they sack Drew Brees five or six times, the 49ers should win.

Sounds easy.

But Brees is hard to sack. Even while playing with backups on the offensive line, Brees has taken just two sacks the past three games.

He usually dumps the ball off before he goes down, and he usually dumps it off to his running back, Kamara, one of the NFL’s best players. Kamara is a key in this game.

Kamara could catch 10 passes against the 49ers. He bails out Brees when Brees is in trouble. He turns would-be sacks into positive plays and sometimes big gains and has almost single-handedly extended Brees’ career. The Saints have won 21 of the past 24 regular-season games Kamara has played. The 49ers have to shut him down.

When the season started and the 49ers looked ahead to this game, they probably expected Kwon Alexander to cover Kamara out of the backfield, because Alexander can match up with Kamara’s quickness and speed. But Alexander is on IR with a pectoral injury. Meaning Fred Warner will have to cover Kamara on key plays. Big test for Warner, who’s a terrific, smart young player, but not quite as athletic as Alexander or Kamara. So much depends on this matchup.

2. A big game from 49ers strong safety Marcell Harris: Brees checks the ball down quite a bit, but he also throws downfield. And when he throws downfield, he often targets his tight end, Jared Cook.

Cook played for the Raiders from 2017 to 2018, and he’s fast. Ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at the combine, a great time for a 6-foot-5, 254-pound athlete. Most linebackers aren’t fast enough to cover Cook. Strong safeties usually cover him.

The 49ers starting strong safety, Jaquiski Tartt, will miss this game with broken ribs. So, his backup, Harris, will have to cover Cook.

Brees has targeted Cook 28 times the past four games. Harris will see lots of action. Is he ready? He certainly was last week when he stripped the ball from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. The 49ers need big plays from Harris.

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3. A plan to protect Jimmy Garoppolo: The 49ers have an excellent pass rush, but so do the Saints. They have 40 sacks this season — only six fewer than the 49ers. Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who went to Cal, recorded four sacks just last week and could be the best defensive lineman in the entire league. He plays like Justin Smith when Smith was in his prime.

It’s possible Garoppolo could go down more than Brees in this game.

The 49ers will have to use a silent count on offense, because the Superdome is so loud — maybe the loudest stadium in the league. The 49ers’ offensive tackles will react a beat late to the snap of the football, and the Saints’ pass rush will have a head start.

Kyle Shanahan needs to call lots of quick-release passes and screens for Garoppolo, like Saints head coach Sean Payton usually does for Brees. And Garoppolo has to hold onto the football when he gets hit. He has fumbled eight times this season.

4. An effective rushing attack: The best way to protect Garoppolo from the Saints and himself is to run the ball.

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But the Saints have a good run defense. Two weeks ago, they held the NFL’s second-leading rusher, Christian McCaffrey, to just 64 rushing yards on 22 carries. The 49ers don’t have a running back as good as McCaffrey.

And yet, the 49ers still rush for 148 yards per game — second most in the NFL. And they have four running backs who can explode for big games any week: Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr.

“They have unique things that they do well, but all of them can do everything,” Garoppolo said. “They can all catch, they can all run with the ball. Kyle and the rest of the coaches do a great job of putting those guys in there and putting them in spots to be successful.”

Last week against the Ravens, Mostert, the 49ers’ third-string running back, rushed for 146 yards. An encore performance wouldn’t hurt.

5. A major contribution from at least one undrafted player: The 49ers have one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, and 25% of their players were undrafted.

Mostert is one of those undrafted players. The others are Breida, Wilson Jr., backup quarterback Nick Mullens, tight end Ross Dwelley, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, left tackle Daniel Brunskill, center Ben Garland, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, defensive end Jeremiah Valoaga, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, nickelback K’Waun Williams and long snapper Kyle Nelson.

Throughout this remarkable season for the 49ers, undrafted players have played significant roles in their success. Mostert kept the 49ers in the game against the Ravens. Wilson Jr. caught a game-winning touchdown pass against the Arizona Cardinals. Moseley shut down Browns All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. And Daniel Brunskill has been an upgrade over Joe Staley at left tackle since Staley injured his leg, finger and back.

Credit John Lynch and the front office for finding these players, and credit Shanahan’s coaching staff for developing them. If the 49ers beat the Saints, one of these undrafted players probably will have a big game. That’s the 49ers’ pattern.

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In one offseason, the defensive line of the San Francisco 49ers has transformed from a group rightfully criticized for underachieving, to the NFL’s gold standard. When that group is praised, it’s often with the declarative statement that it’s composed of five former first-round picks.

The outlier in that group is Solomon Thomas.

When Thomas was selected with the third overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, he was handed a full plate of immediate expectations in much the same way Nick Bosa has—though Bosa has met and maybe exceeded them. To this point, expectations and reality haven’t come close to connecting for Thomas, who understandably struggled last season following the death of his older sister, Ella Elizabeth Thomas.

Now, it’s no longer on his shoulders to carry this defensive front, a group which was eighth-worst in sacks last season, and is now ninth-best thus far—a stat which doesn’t do justice to the pressure being put on opposing quarterbacks and run games.

Thomas has been a clear seventh in the pecking order behind DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair and D.J. Jones, who often pushes Armstead out to end as the starting nose tackle. Armstead slots inside when Ford, who has been on a snap count for much of the early going, comes in at end.

But on Sunday, when Jones picked up a hamstring strain and the 49ers were run ragged by the Rams on their opening possession, Thomas was provided with his opportunity to show how he’s revitalized his game. While he didn’t create the same down-in, down-out pressure that Nick Bosa or Dee Ford have been creating, that’s more a credit to their All-Pro quality as well as the openings that the interior defensive linemen have opened up for those edge rushers.

The ball wasn’t run at Thomas very often on Sunday, and when it was, like many times this season, it boded poorly for the offense. On the Rams’ first snap of their second drive, all three of Thomas, Buckner and Armstead pushed back against their blockers. After being double teamed, Thomas pushed his remaining man towards Rams running back Malcolm Brown. Buckner cleared his man, covering off a potential cutback inside and Armstead did the same as Thomas, leaving space for Kwon Alexander and Jaquiski Tartt to get free around the edge and tackle Brown, who had no space to escape.

Jake Hutchinson
@hutchdiesel
First snap of Rams’ second drive and Solomon Thomas’ first snap of the game. He gets off double team then pushes man towards Brown, Armstead does the same to his man, Buckner clears inside and Tartt and Alexander get free to make the tackle

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It was an immediate adjustment made by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who spent about five minutes to himself just studying film, before coming back to his team and taking measures to counter a seven-play, run-only opening touchdown drive from the Rams. Thomas was quick to credit not only Saleh, but the rest of the defensive coaches, including defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. The praise for Kocurek has been a common thread within the defensive line unit this season.

“He’s a really smart coach, really good at breaking down schemes and who we’re going against and breaking down each offensive linemen, the small stuff you normally wouldn’t hit on top,” Thomas said. “He’s good at opening your eyes to that and really ingraining in our brains and making sure we know it day-in and day-out.”

Thomas was given his second-most snaps of the season against the Rams, the 25 snaps matching the same 48 percent mark which he had in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals (33 snaps). Outside of those two games, Thomas had 12 snaps against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (17 percent) and 11 snaps against both the Pittsburgh Steelers (21 percent) and Cleveland Browns (24 percent).

One common thread is that when Thomas is given snaps, he tends to take advantage of them, especially in the run game, though the ball isn’t often run in his direction. He said Wednesday that while he can play on the edge, the interior is where he feels more comfortable: “I feel like I’m at the best place in my career right now.”

Against the Bengals, Thomas secured his first sack of the season, when he tackled a scrambling Andy Dalton just before the line of scrimmage, but also had a pair of other tackles, one on a run stopped at the line of scrimmage, and the other on a two-yard pass play. Against the Steelers, he had three tackles, one which brought down James Conner for a one-yard gain, and one on a pass play for a gain of three yards. His one tackle against the Browns brought down Nick Chubb for a one-yard gain. Against the Rams, he had one tackle for a loss in the run game and the other was a stop for two yards… along with his first “real sack,” as he termed it.

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Here’s Solomon Thomas’ first “real sack” of the season as he termed it today. He had one against the Bengals on a broken play where he got to a scrambling Andy Dalton in week two

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Thomas said having such talent rushers around him is “a blessing” and provides opportunities for himself and others to get a sack. At least publicly, he seems to be focused on his own improvement, rather than worrying about his draft position and paltry snap count numbers.

“Control what you can control,” Thomas said. “Don’t get lost in anything else, start overthinking or anything. Take advantage of my week in practice and preparation and when I get an opportunity, take advantage of it. That’s all I can do. I can’t worry about how much I’m going to play, how little I’m going to play, just got to go out there and execute when it’s time to execute, so that’s all I’m worried about. Whenever I get out there, I have to play as hard as I can, be the best Solomon Thomas I can be on the field.”

That’s a common theme in the 49ers locker room. When there was a clamoring for Antonio Brown to be traded for, there was zero movement from the 49ers. General manager John Lynch made it clear he wasn’t anywhere on the team’s radar, and it’s part of a concerted effort to bring in players of a certain makeup.

When you look around that locker room, there are no egomaniacs, no divas, guys who you worry about causing a scene. When trying to break down the final roster, defensive end Damontre Moore seemed like he’d earned a spot, and was at the very least on the bubble. But he was a player with a past of arrests, including multiple DWIs, and a scuffle within the locker room over a pair of headphones.

There’s no evidence that Moore’s past is the reason he didn’t make the roster, and he certainly seemed like he was searching for self-improvement after the birth of his first child, but he stood out as a player with a problematic past in a way that no one else on the team did, while someone like Thomas, a third overall pick just two years ago, has accepted a come-off-the-bench role, seemingly without complaint.

On Wednesday, Buckner praised Thomas’ work ethic and attitude this season.

“He doesn’t complain at all, you know, he’s just looking for ways to get better each and every day,” Buckner said. “He goes out there and practices his tail off. All the guys see the hard work that he puts in and when he gets that time to really show everybody what he can do on game day, he’s been doing it and he’s been fighting around… That’s the kind of player you want in a D-lineman.”

Again, it’s no coincidence that the 49ers have been able to get a top-three pick of two years ago to become a plug-and-play guy. It’s part of a culture that, three years into the Shanahan and Lynch administration (with some carryover from the Trent Balke era), is finally paying dividends.

Buckner said he’s noticed that utilitarian vibe in the locker room.

“Definitely. That’s one big thing that I have noticed is not a lot of ego in our team, you know, everybody wants to play,” Buckner said. “You know, everyone wants to do what they can do to help the team succeed. And that’s what you want to be a team. That’s what you want in teammates. Everybody understands their role and what they need to do to get better each and every day to to help this team succeed.”

Buckner was lined up next to Thomas on the field and wasn’t able to see the sideline reaction, but it was conveyed to him by Kocurek.

“Kocurek, we were in the meeting in the meeting room and he was just saying, ‘You should have seen the sideline, all your teammates, how happy they were for the sack.’ Obviously Solly’s had some ups and downs since he’s been here even on a personal level,” Buckner said. “To see the development in just the type of person that he is, it was just great to see when one of your brothers gets to make a big play, especially him. It’s even sweeter.”