Despite the San Francisco 49ers controlling the contest Monday night against the Los Angeles Rams, the game remained a one-possession game with under seven minutes remaining.
Then Talanoa Hufanga stepped in.
The 49ers safety jumped a Matthew Stafford wide-receiver screen to Cooper Kupp and dashed to the end zone for the game-sealing score to give the Niners the 24-9 victory over their division rivals.
“Screens are like — you can smell a rat when it comes to those things,” Hufanga said of what he saw on the play. “Very quick to the flat, they had been doing it all night trying to get it to Kupp. I think they were trying to get back on track, just trying to get things going. Guys are just swarming. The defense was playing lights out.”
Hufanga has been a menace on defense all season, flying all over the field, making tackles, breaking up passes, and causing havoc on the 49ers’ back end — can we get this guy a Defensive Player of the Week award, please, NFL? Monday night, he punctuated a fantastic start to the season with his first career touchdown, in prime time no less. If you didn’t know who Tufanga was before Monday night, you surely do now.
“I think anyone who’s seen Huf play this year and even last year, the guy doesn’t hesitate and if you do that you better make some very good, educated guesses or it’s not long before you give up the big plays and keep both teams in the game, and that’s what Huf’s been really impressive with here this year,” coach Kyle Shanahan said.
Hufanga was a playmaker at USC, but middling testing during the draft process and questions about where he could play dropped him to the fifth round in 2021. The 49ers nabbed themselves a steal. Not only does Hufanga’s play call to mind Troy Polamalu, but the safety actually trains with the Hall of Famer in the offseason.
“I think he’s just really smart. He’s an incredible blitzer,” Nick Bosa said of Hufanga. “He can do pretty much anything on the field. I think he trains with Troy Polamalu throughout the offseason, so that can’t hurt. And yeah, I think his mind is his biggest asset.”
Hufanga epitomizes a 49ers defense that flies to the ball and never gives an inch without resistance. DeMeco Ryans’ D leads the NFL with just 11.5 points per game allowed, 3.8 yards per play allowed, given up the fewest big plays (12), and is tied with Buffalo for fewest yards allowed (234.5) through four weeks.
The Niners boast a championship-caliber defense that will keep them in competition even in weeks the offense struggles.
“I think it’s to be best in the league,” Bosa said of the defense’s ceiling. “It’s kind of our mindset every year and this year we have the personnel to do it. Not that we haven’t in the past, but at all three levels are elite players. I think the addition of [CB Charvarius Ward] and [Hufanga] starting to play at this level and then the depth on the defensive line. So it’s a group effort.”
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