Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Tuesday Gang Tackle: 49ers Defense is The NFL's Best

The 49ers are putting the "stick" in Candlestick. They are also giving new meaning to the overused term "motor." Some teams have players with high motors, but the 49ers are a defense that has a collective motor that revs higher and runs nastier than any other.

Now, at 11-3, the 49ers are in the driver's seat for clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and they are doing it with an offense that is near the bottom in red zone offense and a quarterback who has yet to throw for over 300 yards in a single game this year.

How have they done it? If you watched last night's rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers you already know. It's just one word and it starts with a capital "D." Oh, and to coin another phrase, it hurts so good.

The 49ers defense is a daunting amalgamation of speed, intensity, athleticism, and pugilism. From their nearly impenetrable front seven, which has now gone an NFL-record 14 consecutive games without allowing a rushing touchdown (the all-time NFL record for fewest in a season is 4), to their punishing secondary which makes receivers think long and hard before they run crossing routes, the 'niners are dominating, with another capital "D."

Even without their pro-bowl linebacker Patrick Willis last night, San Francisco's defense was invincible. Why? Because defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme is built to succeed, and all the defensive personnel that wear the red and gold are coached to excel within that system. Plug in a third-year linebacker named Larry Grant in Willis' place and he looks like a pro-bowler himself. Turn a lanky rookie loose as an outside pass rusher (Aldon Smith) and he breaks the franchise record for rookie sacks. Give credit to Grant and Smith for stepping in and taking advantage of opportunities, but don't forget: Fangio's system is so effective, and the 49ers are so well-coached that the loss of a superstar like Willis won't deflate them.

And the stats don't lie: San Francisco has given up a stingy NFL-best 13.2 points per game, which is more than two points better than the next-best team. Even among elite defenses, the numbers point to San Francisco being the elite of the elite. The 49ers lead the NFL with 35 takeaways, and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 36 games. And to make matters worse for opponents, the 49ers offense and special teams is geared to letting the defense be the focal point of the team. Last night, thanks to ball control offense, zero turnovers, and the almost superhuman punting of Andy Lee (No. 1 net yardage in the NFL and 26 punts inside the opponents 20), the 49ers forced Pittsburgh to start 5 drives inside their own 14 yard line.

It's the perfect recipe for the perfect storm, and the 49ers, well-coached, highly athletic, and edgy, are the perfect unit to take advantage.

This team is a stark contradiction to the 49ers dynasty that Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice spearheaded, but to 49er faithful, winning with defense is just as sweet as winning with offense.

More than anything else, it's the scoreboard that matters, and the 49ers defense tilts the score in their favor each and every week.