Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer 361d

DeForest Buckner 'dominating' but still seeking that extra step

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The traditional metrics found in a regular NFL boxscore might not show it but San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has been one of the league's best interior players through the first three weeks of the season.

According to Pro Football Focus, Buckner has 16 quarterbacks pressures (six hits and 10 hurries) in the first three games, the most of any interior defensive lineman in the league. In two of those games (Seattle and Los Angeles), Buckner was the Niners' highest-graded player. In the third, against Carolina, he was fourth.

Overall, Buckner has earned a 90.4 overall grade, which makes him one of just three interior defenders in the league to have a grade of 90 or better on PFF's grading scale. All of which is impressive, especially considering he doesn't yet have a sack in 2017.

As the Niners prepare to play the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the next step for Buckner, according to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is, well, taking the next step and finishing those plays where he gets close with sacks.

“DeForest is dominating," Saleh said on Thursday. "And those sacks are going to come in bunches for him. I know he hasn’t gotten the sacks yet, but if he keeps doing what he’s doing and he keeps operating the way he is, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to flood the gates open."

In order to get break through and start turning those pressures into sacks, Buckner believes it's a matter of the defensive line rushing as a cohesive unit. While much of pass rushing comes down to winning one-on-one battles, just beating the man in front of you isn't enough to result in sacks.

Buckner has consistently beaten blockers this season only to find himself in the backfield without any help. Particularly against mobile quarterbacks such as Seattle's Russell Wilson and Carolina's Cam Newton, the absence of fellow defenders has allowed for those quarterbacks to escape Buckner's grasp, which is a big reason why he has yet to register a sack.

"It’s all about the whole defensive line rushing together," Buckner said. "Obviously if I win my one-on-one clean, and I’m just the only one back there and there’s no pressure by all of us in containing him, obviously he’s going to be able to step out of containment or just get the ball out real quick. So that’s why we need everybody to be on the same page and rush together as a unit."

While Buckner acknowledges that it's been frustrating to have so many close calls without bringing the quarterback down, he isn't pressing the panic button either. As a rookie last year, Buckner didn't get his first sack until Week 6. He went on to finish with six sacks in a defensive scheme that asked him to be far less aggressive than the one he is currently in under Saleh.

"I know they come in bunches, so I know at some point, it’s going to come along," Buckner said. "I’ve been getting back there a lot the past three weeks so I know they’re going to come. I’ve just got to let it come to me."

Saleh compared Buckner's start to what he saw from Atlanta pass-rusher Vic Beasley last year. Beasley had just five sacks in his first 20 games but seemed to buzz around the quarterback often. Finally, it all clicked last season and Beasley went on to put up 14.5 sacks over the final 12 games.

That's not to say Buckner has a similar outburst in him (especially since he plays a position that makes such numbers unlikely) but Saleh does believe there are big things that await Buckner in the rest of his second season.

"You’re getting to the quarterback, but you’re a step short," Saleh said. "He’s going to find that step. There’s no doubt he’s going to find that step if he keeps working and the doors will just blow wide open and it’ll also give an opportunity to the people around him.”

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