Unheralded pass rusher Charles Omenihu steps up for 49ers

Sports

When the San Francisco 49ers needed a game-changing defensive play in their playoff opener it wasn’t one of their three first-team All-Pros who delivered.

Instead it was under-the-radar pass rusher Charles Omenihu, who seems to have a knack for rising up on the playoff stage.

Omenihu’s strip sack against Geno Smith helped San Francisco take control in the second half of a 41-23 wild-card victory last week over Seattle and it was just the latest big postseason play he’s provided in his short time in San Francisco.

“We’re all big-time players so it doesn’t matter who is going to step up,” he said. “Thank God I’ve been able to. In the year and a half that I’ve been here, I have been able to step up in those big-time games and help my team win.”

Omenihu had two sacks against the Seahawks in a performance that was reminiscent of how he played last year in the wild-card round at Dallas when he had 1 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble.

Omenihu is now getting ready to face the Cowboys again in the divisional round on Sunday when San Francisco (14-4) hosts Dallas (13-5) with a spot in the NFC title game on the line.

Since being acquired at the trade deadline of the 2021 season from Houston for a future sixth-round pick, Omenihu has developed into a complementary piece on a defensive line anchored by All-Pro Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead.

“I figured out what worked best for me,” he said. “Just over time, I continued preparing and studying myself. I understand how I should maneuver and play in this system.”

Omenihu is the latest reclamation product of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who has excelled in his time in San Francisco at bringing in low-profile defensive linemen and turning them into valuable pieces for the defense.

The Niners have gotten key contributions this season from linemen like Omenihu, Jordan Willis and Hassan Ridgeway, who struggled to produce in their previous stops.

“He’s really revamped his preparation,” Bosa said about Omenihu. “He was more of a big interior guy when he came in. The time that’s he’s been here, he’s really bought into the scheme. He’s a really good player for us.”

Omenihu’s versatility has been important to the 49ers as he has lined up at both end spots, as well as playing in the interior, where he has used his length and quickness to “carve up” guards in pass rushing situations.

Omenihu said Kocurek has helped teach him how to use his 36-inch arms to become a better pass rusher.

“Charles has such good length and even when he is blocked, he has a way of affecting the quarterback because of the length that he has,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “But what he has done, not only in just getting to the quarterback that you guys see with the stats and everything, but it’s also important when you don’t get to him to not let him out of that pocket and just rush up the field. And I think he’s done a real good job of that here in these last couple games of still being able to affect the quarterback and not just always trying to rush past the quarterback because he’s condensed that pocket.”

NOTES: The 49ers are once again mostly healthy with only QB Jimmy Garoppolo (foot) and backup CB Ambry Thomas (ankle) missing practice. … WR Jauan Jennings (ankle), DL Samsonn Ebukam (ankle) and DL Javon Kinlaw (knee) were all limited.

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