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SANTA CLARA — Tarvarius Moore is in the NFL’s concussion protocol after the 49ers’ backup safety and special-teams player injured his head in the fourth quarter of the 49ers’ 34-31 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night.

Moore was injured while making a big hit on Rams punt returner Nsimba Webster early in the fourth quarter of the 49ers’ victory at Levi’s Stadium.

Webster fielded Mitch Wishnowsky’s punt on one bounce and Moore, running at full speed from his spot as the gunner on the left side, immediately hit Webster after a 1-yard return.

Moore was evaluated for a concussion, and he now goes into the concussion protocol. He will not be eligible to play in the 49ers’ regular-season finale against the Seattle Seahawks until he clears the necessary steps in order to return to play.

Moore started the 49ers’ first three games of the season at free safety in place of Jimmie Ward. He has turned into one of the team’s best special-teams performers, and Moore had one of the plays of the season in the team’s victory over the New Orleans Saints.

The 23-year-old is one of four players with injury concerns as the 49ers head into the important Week 17 game, which will decide the NFC West champion. If the 49ers win, they will earn home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. A Seahawks victory would drop the 49ers to the No. 5 seed, and they would open the playoffs with an opening-weekend game at the winner of the NFC East.

[RELATED: Huge 49ers-Seahawks Week 17 game flexed to Sunday night]

Defensive end Dee Ford is not expected to be available for Sunday’s game due to hamstring and quadriceps injuries. But the club expects Ford to be available for the playoffs, a source told NBC Sports Bay Area.

Safety Jaquiski Tartt (ribs) and defensive tackle Julian Taylor (elbow) have missed multiple games with their injuries. Each player is considered day-today. The statuses of both players will be determined later in the week.

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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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SANTA CLARA — Near the back corner of the 49ers’ locker room, a defensive back opened his backpack to retrieve his latest pay stub. He tore open the envelope to confirm what he already knew.

Antone Exum Jr., who makes his living as a professional football player, worked for free last week.

Pay to the order of Antone Exum Jr. in the amount of zero dollars, zero cents.

For the vast majority of NFL players, their salaries aren’t guaranteed. They receive 1/17th of their pay weekly during the regular season. Exum, a fifth-year pro, makes $705,000. Before taxes, that comes out to $41,470 weekly.

But the 49ers defensive back played for free last week while making his sixth start of the season because the NFL fined him $53,472 for a hit on Denver Broncos wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton in Week 14. Exum also was penalized 15 yards on the play, so he was punished twice for the same foul.

It looked — and felt to Exum — like a clean hit.

“It was a pretty clean shot,” he said. “ It just looked like … that much? For that?”

Hamilton caught an 18-yard pass on a post pattern, and Exum stepped up from his free safety position in the deep middle of the field to hit him. Exum clearly turned his left shoulder into Hamilton and did not lead with his helmet.

“They are trying to protect guys,” Exum said. “I understand, but I hope they thoroughly review the film and fairly review the case that we presented at the appeal when they think about reducing it.”

NFL appeals officer Derrick Brooks, the Hall of Fame linebacker, heard Exum’s appeal last week. Exum expects to hear to the result of his appeal in the coming days.

Exum was treated as a second-time offender after the NFL fined him $26,739 earlier this season for a hit away from the ball on Kansas City Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins in Week 3.

Exum said he knew as part of the 49ers’ preparation — personnel, formation, and down and distance — that quarterback Patrick Mahomes would look to get the ball to Watkins across the middle. Exum jumped the route and hit Watkins, as Mahomes went to his second read to throw to Chris Conley. Exum was penalized for unnecessary roughness.

[RELATED: Why playoff-bound Rams won’t rest their starters Sunday vs. 49ers]

Brooks also heard Exum’s appeal on that infraction. The fine was reduced to $5,000.

“I’m not going to complain about that,” Exum said. “I know my intent. I don’t have any bad intent going to the head or neck area. I’m not that type of player to be targeting. It hurts me as much as it would hurt the guy I’m hitting. And it hurts the team.”

The fine money was reimbursed later. Exum hopes another successful appeal will show up in his final paycheck of the season.

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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.

RELATED

Former BYU Cougars linebacker Fred Warner is ripping it up in San Francisco
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.”

GRID VIEW

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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It was not a good day for 49ers wide receivers on Sunday.

Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne combined for just four receptions for 49 yards in the 49ers’ lackluster 29-22 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Contrast that to the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones, who caught 13 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns on the day at Levi’s Stadium.

The 49ers relied heavily on tight end George Kittle, who matched Jones’ numbers – minus the touchdown receptions. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo targeted Kittle on half of his 34 pass attempts.

Coach Kyle Shanahan said he did not believe the 49ers relied excessively on Kittle because Garoppolo did not force anything into double coverage.

“You don’t just call plays that say ‘Go to Kittle,’ ” Shanahan said. “You might want to start there and if they don’t double him, he usually gets it because he usually wins, and if not you progress. There are a number of plays we try to get to other people, but Kittle got the majority of it.”

[RELATED: 49ers report card: Grades on offense, defense in 29-22 loss to Falcons]

The 49ers had five receivers in uniform for Sunday’s game, but two were complete non-factors. Richie James played just three offensive snaps and did not have a pass thrown his way. Dante Pettis, a second-round draft pick in 2018, never even entered the game.

Here is a look at how much everyone on the 49ers played Sunday on offense, defense and special teams:

Offense
Total offensive snaps: 64
Quarterback – Jimmy Garoppolo 64
Running back – Raheem Mostert 34, Kyle Juszczyk 25, Tevin Coleman 19, Matt Breida 12
Wide receiver – Emmanuel Sanders 61, Deebo Samuel 57, Kendrick Bourne 34, Richie James 3
Tight end – George Kittle 61, Levine Toilolo 11, Ross Dwelley 9
Offensive line – Laken Tomlinson 64, Mike Person 64, Mike McGlinchey 64, Joe Staley 64, Ben Garland 64
Did not play – QB Nick Mullens, WR Dante Pettis, TE Daniel Helm

Defense
Total defensive snaps: 67
Defensive line – Nick Bosa 63, Arik Armstead 60, DeForest Buckner 60, Solomon Thomas 40, Sheldon Day 24, Jeremiah Valoaga 12, Kentavius Street 11
Linebacker – Fred Warner 67, Dre Greenlaw 65, Azeez Al-Shaair 18, Mark Nzeocha 1
Defensive back – Jimmie Ward 67, Marcell Harris 67, Emmanuel Moseley 66, Ahkello Witherspoon 66, D.J. Reed 49, Tarvarius Moore 1

Special teams
Total special teams plays: 30
Moore 25, Elijah Lee 24, Nzeocha 24, Dontae Johnson 22, James 20, Antone Exum 17, Mitch Wishnowsky 15, A-Shaair 15, Dwelley 13, Mostert 12, Bourne 11, Ward 11, Breida 10, Toilolo 10, Kyle Nelson 9, Armstead 9, Buckner 9, Day 8, Harris 7, Reed 6, Justin Skule 5, Robbie Gould 5, Daniel Brunskill 5, Jeff Wilson 5, McGlinchey 5, Garland 5, Tomlinson 5, Juszczyk 4, Thomas 4, Coleman 3, Moseley 3, Bosa 1, Greenlaw 1, Samuel 1, Warner 1

Not active
QB C.J. Beathard
WR Jordan Matthews
CB K’Waun Williams (concussion)
CB Richard Sherman (hamstring)
S Jaquiski Tartt (ribs)
DE Dee Ford (hamstring)
DT Jullian Taylor (elbow)

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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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The last decade of football at Kansas State has been rather exciting for fans, players and coaches alike. Between a Big 12 Championship, a few major upsets and some bowl wins, there has been a lot to cheer about as a Wildcat fan.

Bill Snyder 2.0 led the Wildcats through the majority of this decade, and then Chris Klieman came in for the final year of the decade. Between the two coaches, K-State compiled an 81-47 record and reached nine bowl games, including this year’s Liberty Bowl appearance, which is just a few days away. There has been tons to cheer for as K-State fans. And that’s largely because of the players on the field.

We cracked open the history books, looked back at some of the best careers for players over the last ten years of K-State football and decided which players have left the biggest impact on the K-State football program.

With the decade ending in just a few days, here is a look back at the all-time starting defense over the last decade at K-State:

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DEFENSIVE END — JORDAN WILLIS
Jordan Willis
Former defensive end Jordan Willis
(Photo: Peter G. Aiken, Getty)
Jordan Willis goes down as one of the toughest forces to stop on a K-State defensive line in history. At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, Willis finished his career with 113 tackles, 39.5 for loss, and 25.5 sacks to push for the top of the list in school history. Willis was named a Second Team All-American, a First Team All-Big 12 player and the Big 12 Defensive Player and Defensive Lineman of the year.

DEFENSIVE END — RYAN MUELLER

Ryan Mueller
(Photo: Scott Sewell)
Throughout his career in Manhattan, Ryan Mueller caused headaches for opposing offensive linemen. He had 116 tackles in his career (60 of which came in 2013 alone), 28.5 for loss and 16.5 sacks. Mueller was a First Team All-Big 12 selection in 2013 and 2014, a Second Team All-American in 2013, the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2013 and Honorable Mention Defensive Lineman of the Year in the Big 12 in 2014.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE — TRAVIS BRITZ

Former defensive tackle Travis Britz
(Photo: Scout.com)
For three consecutive years, Travis Britz found a way to blow up plays from his defensive tackle spot. He steadily improved over his career, finishing with 111 tackles, 24.5 for loss and 10 sacks. As a sophomore and junior, Britz was an Honorable Mention All-Big 12 pick, and then a Second Team All-Big 12 pick in 2015. He is now back in Manhattan as a graduate assistant on Chris Klieman’s staff.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE — WILL GEARY

Will Geary was a handful for opposing lines
(Photo: Steve Adelson, 247Sports)
Nobody expected a walk-on from Topeka to make as much of an impact as Will Geary did, but for four years, Geary proved people wrong. A four-year starter, Geary totaled 164 tackles, 25.5 for loss and 11 sacks. Throughout his career, he was First Team All-Big 12 three times, First Team All-American in 2017 and an Honorable Mention pick for Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2017.

LINEBACKER — ARTHUR BROWN
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Former linebacker Arthur Brown
(Photo: Kevin Hoffman)
Although he was only at K-State for two seasons, Arthur Brown might be in the mix for the best defensive player of the decade in Manhattan. Over just two seasons, Brown had 201 tackles, 16.5 for loss and three sacks. Brown was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, First Team All-American and First Team All-Big 12 in 2012, as well as First Team All-Big 12 and Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2011.

LINEBACKER — ELIJAH LEE
Title/Alt Text
Elijah Lee was one of the better recruits in the 2014 class for K-State
(Photo: Scott Sewell, USA TODAY Sports)
Perhaps no defensive player bust onto the scene faster than Elijah Lee did. Taking the field as a true freshman in 2014, he went from 19 tackles, to 80, to 110 in his three-year career before going to the NFL. Lee finished with 209 tackles, 18.5 for loss and 11 sacks. He was Honorable Mention Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2014, First Team All-Big 12 and Honorable Mention Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.

NICKELBACK — RANDALL EVANS

Former defensive back Randall Evans
(Photo: Scott Sewell, USA TODAY Sports)
As Randall Evans got older, nobody wanted to throw his way. He went from no interceptions as a freshman, to one as a sophomore, two as a junior and then four his senior year. Evans also recorded 210 tackles, 10.5 for loss, and two sacks. He was a First Team All-Big 12 selection in 2014 and then picked in the sixth round of the NFL Draft.

CORNERBACK — NIGEL MALONE

Nigel Malone came to Kansas State from the junior college ranks and logged back-to-back significant numbers for interceptions.
(Photo: 247Sports)
After transferring in from junior college, Nigel Malone had a stellar career, even if it was just two years in Manhattan. He totaled 109 tackles and 12 interceptions, seven in 2011 and then five in 2012. Malone was a First Team All-Big 12 pick and Third Team All-American in 2011, and then was named Second Team All-Big 12 and was an Honorable Mention All-American in 2012.

CORNERBACK — D.J. REED

Former cornerback D.J. Reed
(Photo: Emily Starkey, 247Sports)
Another junior college transfer, D.J. Reed was nothing short of a lockdown defender in his career. He had seven interceptions over his two-year career, while also recording 125 tackles, five of which were for loss. Reed was First Team All-Big 12 and the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the year in 2016. As a junior in 2017, He was a First Team All-Big 12 and Second Team All-American pick, as a defensive back alone. That doesn’t count his multiple special teams awards.

SAFETY — DANTE BARNETT
Title/Alt Text
Former safety Dante Barnett
(Photo: k-statefans.com)
After being forced onto the field at a young age because of injuries to other players, Dante Barnett blossomed into a special defensive back at K-State. He finished with eight interceptions, four of which came in 2013 alone. He also had 242 tackles, 10.5 for loss, and one sack. Barnett was the Defensive MVP of the 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Second Team All-Big 12 in 2014 and Third Team All-Big 12 in 2016.

SAFETY — TY ZIMMERMAN

Ty Zimmerman
(Photo: Scout.com)
From the start of his career until the end of it, Ty Zimmerman was always a force to be reckoned with. He had 13 interceptions in his career, two of which were returned for scores. He recorded 257 tackles, 11 of which were for loss. Zimmerman was an All-Big 12 selection all four years, including twice as a First Team pick, Second Team All-American twice and an Honorable Mention Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year pick.

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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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Raiders head coach Jon Gruden.

Unless the Oakland Raiders do a miracle and make it to the playoffs, there is another football week for the team. With such little time left in the season, Oakland kicked the tires on some young players. The trend continued Tuesday as the Raiders claimed former San Francisco defensive line Jeremiah Valoago among the eliminators.

On the move, the team sent defensive lineman Nick Nelson to the injured reserve. Nelson was recently promoted from the practice squad but was injured early in the game against the Los Angeles Charger on Sunday.

Valoago was a late-season addition for the 49ers and was recently waived by the team. He played in four games for them and compiled two tackles. He was originally signed with the Detriot Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2017 where he played nine games and notched a sack. He later walked the Miami Dolphins where he was a member of their practice squad for the 2018 season.

He had a long, five-year college career at UNLV, so he was familiar with the future home of the Raiders.

Follow the Strong Oakland Raiders page for the latest news, gossip and content!

JOHNATHAN HANKINS RESTRUCTURES IS ENGAGING WITH THE RAIDER
One of the unsung heroes in the Raiders’ defensive line was Johnathan Hankins. He is one of the best running backs on the team of all time but does not get a ton of fans because he is not a quarterback and only has one season. That should not discount his impact on defense this season. Thanks to his strong play, the Raiders converted his roster bonus into a sign bonus, according to ESPN’s Field Yates.

The Raiders changed the $ 1.75M roster bonus since DT Johnathan Hankins this offseason as a signing bonus, per source. Not only does it offer a bonus for two years, but it is often a reflection of a player who fits into the team’s future plans. He will be solid in 2019.

– Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 24, 2019

As Yates mentioned, this move is a good sign for Hankins’ future on the team. His roster spot doesn’t have to be given, but he looks like he’ll be joining the Raiders in Las Vegas. It’s not all that surprising considering the praise Jon Gruden gave the veteran in the offseason.

(Hankins) is probably our most improved player and most impacted defensive lineman to date, “Gruden said in August.” He has better durability, he can play hash on hash. I really like where he is, a lot. “

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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.

Jake Hutchinson
@hutchdiesel
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.”