It’s impossible to look at the San Francisco 49ers’ 25-19 win over the Detroit Lions and pick one player or unit that drove them to victory. But if you HAD to pick one area of the team to thank profusely and hand-feed grapes during the bye week, the defense would be the only logical choice.
It’s been a long time since the 49ers had a defense they could trust like this. Are they as good as they were in 1997, the last time the Niners’ defense finished in the top-3 in points (No. 3) and yards (No. 1)? Maybe not yet, but this is the most balanced defense the Niners have displayed in quite some time, which is especially remarkable considering how porous the secondary looked just a month ago and how bad the pass rush was over the past five-plus years.
It sounds quaint, and almost foolish after the sixth game of the season, but the defense played like champions on Sunday. They did everything their coaching staff could hope for, especially against an offense as fast and skilled as Detroit’s…
1. They kept the Lions from even considering a commitment to their ground game.
2. Besides two consecutive tosses to Jahvid Best that combined for over 50 yards, the Niners effectively stifled Detroit’s ability to succeed with short passes.
3. Calvin Johnson (6 catches, 102 yards) may have had the quietest 100-yard day ever.
How did the Niners contain Megatron, Best and the rest of the Lions? Glad you asked. Here’s how the 49ers shined defensively, with the credit given in pairs.
Smiths. Lots and lots of Smiths.
If I’m not the president of the Aldon Smith fanclub, I’m at least the treasurer. Okay, the secretary. Whatever the role, I was more than happy to defend Aldon after a couple penalties (a personal foul for hitting Matthew Stafford below the knees and an offsides flag on the next play) made him look like an overcharged rookie trying to prove himself in all the wrong ways.
Instead, the coaches kept him in the game on the next play after those two consecutive flags, and for quite a few plays afterward. Perhaps Vic Fangio thought Ford Field’s artificial surface was the best place to fully unleash his freakishly athletic rookie. Aldon rewarded the coaches and his teammates with two of the most important kind of sacks a guy can get — one caused a safety, and the other forced a fumble. Now he has 5.5 sacks through 6 games, and my earlier claim that he’s the next Charles Haley (just without all the public masturbating) seems a little less delusional.
Then there’s Justin Smith. What can you say? He’s having an All-Pro season. Justin collected 1.5 sacks against the Lions, giving the guy with the Anheuser-Busch tattoo 4.5 on the season. Sack numbers can be over-emphasized, and it’d be foolish to call Aldon’s accomplishments and duties more important than Justin’s. It was Justin Smith who foiled the Lions’ drive after Alex Smith’s first quarter fumble by tackling Jahvid Best for a loss and scaring Matthew Stafford into an overthrow on 3rd and goal.
One-on-one with Calvin Johnson … why not? That’s the way the Niners feel, and things are going so well that to Niners fans, every decision — no matter how risky — seems like the path to genius. When it comes to the secondary, after the garbage we’ve watched for years and years, I’m willing to trust that the corners Fangio and Ed Donatell choose will actually cover receivers.
Chris Culliver looks like an absolute steal as a third-round pick so far.
And let’s give a huge thanks to Dan Snyder for keeping DeAngelo Hall and letting Carlos Rogers walk. Solid strategy! The Redskins had no problem waving good-bye to Rogers, allowing the Niners to add their best free agent defender since … Justin Smith.
D&D Safety Committee
You’d buy a burglar alarm system from “D&D Safety,” wouldn’t you? Actually, that sounds more like a Dungeons and Dragons chat room, so perhaps not. Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are hitting opposing running backs, punt returners and wide receivers hard this year. Could it be time to unleash D&D on some quarterbacks? If that’s what the Niners work on during the bye week, Colt McCoy’s dad should be very, very concerned for his son’s safety.
Mac and Soap
Isaac Sopoaga left the 49ers’ practice facility with his left arm in a sling on Monday, but only missed last week’s game against Tampa Bay after suffering a staph infection. It’s pretty hard to overstate how tough one has to be to return from something like that so quickly. The fact that Sopoaga played as much as he did, sucking up blockers and even contributing as a blocking fullback again (when he was penalized for ripping the helmet off an opponent, which was funny since Ndamukong Suh shoved Anthony Davis’ helmet off his head on the 49ers’ first touchdown and wasn’t flagged), was beyond impressive. To his teammates, it had to be inspiring.
The 49ers signing Ray MacDonald to a fairly big-money deal, while not able to keep the more highly touted Aubrayo Franklin, was thought to be one of the more curious transactions this past off-season. Franklin played well in his time in San Francisco, but does anyone really miss him now? MacDonald’s had a tremendous season, and along with everyone else contributed to Stafford looking like he was ready for the game to end about a quarter before it did.
Brown and Brooks
Tarell Brown and Ahmad Brooks don’t play the same position, far from it. But if we’re going to stay with this “pairs” theme, we can’t forget Brooks (who came in unblocked on one play, leading Stafford to crumble to the turf) and contributed in coverage as well.
Brown seemed to be a weak link early on this season, leading fans to wonder if Shawntae Spencer could possibly contribute more. The new regime never seemed to take to Spencer, whose best days probably ended back in 2009. And Brown, like Culliver and Rogers, was also allowed to cover Johnson one-on-one — with a little safety help, but not as much as one would would’ve expected.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are both so good, with games so similar, that sometimes it’s hard to tell which one made the previous play. Was that No. 52 or 53? Um, I think that was a “2” instead of “3,” but I should rewind that play just to make sure. Willis is the proven superstar, a defensive player of the year candidate, but Bowman looks almost like Willis’ twin this season.
Willis’ strength isn’t in coverage, but he was great against Brandon Pettigrew, one of the more athletic tight ends in the league. Even Pettigrew’s TD catch was covered well by Willis, who had an arm in there but couldn’t knock the ball away until Pettigrew hit the ground and the catch was officially made.
Anyone who’s read this site frequently knows I wasn’t exactly broken up over the loss of Takeo Spikes this past off-season, and Bowman’s showing why the Niners were so willing to let the defense’s (supposed) vocal leader walk. Bowman may be faster than Willis, and the combination of those two guys means if you’re an offensive coordinator facing the 49ers you should probably scrap those ideas of controlling the game via the ground game and screen passes.
“Best … I’ve ever seen!”
Huh, you know what’s interesting? We just went over the entire defense.
In all, the whole unit was unbelievable. At the beginning of the year there were holes, but they had this strange habit of hitting guys really, really hard. Now the stats are starting to show how good they’ve been, as the 49ers are…
— Leading the league in opponent red zone scoring percentage.
— Second in points allowed (16.2 per game, behind only the Baltimore Ravens who’ve allowed 14.2 ppg).
— Tied for third in sacks with 17.
— Tied for fourth in interceptions with 8.
— Second in rushing yards allowed per game.
— The only team not to allow a rushing TD.
— Sixth in opponent QB rating.
During the bye week Fangio will continue to work with the secondary, and perhaps add some of the schemes that might already be in place if the lockout didn’t delay things. However, while there’s always room for improvement, the 49ers just faced one of the hottest offensive teams in the league and stifled everything they wanted to do on their home field, which led Jim Harbaugh to say this in his postgame speech (again, another must-watch video … you have to love Trent Baalke’s enthusiasm, as well as Alex Smith’s reaction when Harbaugh calls him “clutch”):
Vic said, you’re going to hear it a lot. That’s the best defensive performance … I’ve ever seen!