Defense has been mean gang of tacklers all season
The 49ers’ defensive to-do list for the second half of the season looks a lot like their got-done list from the season’s first eight games. The NFL’s second-ranked defense was steadily dominant during San Francisco’s run to a 6-2 start, giving the Niners a powerful template for how they’d like the rest of the season to play out on that side of the football.
With their second-half opener looming Sunday against the St. Louis Rams – just San Francisco’s second game in 24 days as the Niners return from their bye – outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks stood in the middle of the San Francisco locker room earlier this week speaking matter-of-factly about what the team’s defensive mission will be once the 49ers resume play.
“As a defensive unit, the way we play speaks for itself,” Brooks said. “We’re an aggressive D, and we want to shut guys out.”
Nobody in the NFL does that better than the Niners. San Francisco aggressive, ferocious defense spent the first half of the season shutting down and punching out opponents.
But there’s still work to be done, and nobody knows that better than coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit that ranks either first or second in the NFL in seven major defensive categories.
San Francisco’s elite defense has gotten more help from the team’s improved offense so far, and special teams have provided roughly the same contribution they gave the team last season. But there is no question defense is still the 49ers’ marquee unit, the pillar on which the team’s reputation and foundation as a powerhouse and true championship contender is built upon.
That unit lived up to all that with its stellar first-half play, when the defense matured as a veteran unit and built on what the 49ers accomplished in 2011, when San Francisco ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense and led the league in rushing defense.
So far this season, the Niners already have spent time at No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and passing defense. They rank No. 2 in the league in both those categories this week as they enter the back half of the season, and are No. 1 in the league in yards allowed per play, passing average allowed per play, first downs allowed per play and perhaps the key defensive category of all – points allowed per game.
“It’s a veteran group of talented players, and you see upward trajectory really in all their play,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I don’t see anybody that’s falling off or decreasing in their effort or their performance on the field. And then how they’re playing together as a group – all those things – we’re seeing good improvement at a high level.”
The 49ers have played at the highest level keeping opponents away from their goal line. San Francisco has allowed a NFL-low nine touchdowns, including a league-low six through the air.
The 49ers have not allowed a touchdown in four of their past five games, including their last time out before bye, when they thumped the Cardinals 24-3 in Arizona before a national Monday night audience, limiting the Cards to just seven yards rushing, tying the franchise record for fewest rushing yards allowed in a game.
That was just to show everybody that San Francisco’s ferocious rush defense is still alive and well and stuffing opponents. The 49ers have not been as statistically dominant in that area as last year, when the defense built its reputation on being the No. 1 run-stopper in the league, but running against the Niners sure doesn’t appear to be getting any easier than it used to be.
In San Francisco’s four victories during that stretch – the hiccup was that troubling 26-3 loss to the New York Giants – the Niners have allowed just 12 total points. San Francisco shut out the New York Jets in September and is allowing just 12.9 points per game, which would be a franchise record if it holds to the end of the season.
San Francisco’s lone shutout last season came against St. Louis at Candlestick Park, where the 49ers will be looking to shut down the struggling Rams (3-5) again and extend their 11-game home winning streak against NFC West opponents. That’s the longest active streak in the NFL.
“You want to be good at everything, but the biggest thing is keeping teams out of the end zone,” Harbaugh said. “Number one is keep the other team from scoring, as few points as possible.”
The 49ers also have made strides this year defending against the pass, which has made them a complete defense. San Francisco ranks second in the NFL in pass defense after finishing 16th in that category last year.
San Francisco is the only NFL team not to allow a passing touchdown of more than 20 yards this season, and the 49ers have allowed only nine passing plays of 25 or more yards, the third-fewest in the league.
The secondary has been clamp-down in coverage most of the season, allowing the 49ers to dictate what they want to do defensively without even having to resort much to blitzing.
The starting unit of cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown and safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner have become a tighter, more consistent group who have become yet another strength for what is becoming generally known as the NFL’s best defense.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has lauded the improvement of his secondary to a man, and that includes nickel cornerback Chris Culliver, who has become a regular part of San Francisco’s defensive packages and has been superb in man-to-man coverage situations on the edge.
“Little strides in a lot of areas equals a big difference,” Fangio said.
One area where the 49ers would like things to be different the rest of the season is creating more turnovers. The Niners led the NFL in takeaways (38) and turnover differential (plus-28) last season, but at midseason this year they’ve produced only 12 turnovers and their turnover differential stands at plus-3.
Brooks pointed out that San Francisco’s defense hasn’t been getting as many opportunities to create turnovers because it hasn’t been on the field for as many plays as other defenses around the league. The 49ers’ defense is averaging just 59.6 plays per game.
But turnovers are about the only thing in which this defense has been lacking, and there’s still a half season to work on improving those numbers.
“We were looking at that turnover-ratio chart the other day,” Brooks said. “Last year, we were at the top of that chart. We’re going to have to boost that up. But we’ll just keep doing the same things we’ve been doing all year, the same things we were doing last year – just trying to go out there and dominate the other team.”
So far, so good. And expect to see a lot more of the same the rest of the year.