Early on in 2011 I was thinking the 49ers would be favorites to win the NFC West. A kind of default scenario given the state of play in the NFC West as I lacked faith in the Rams, Seahawks and Cardinals.
Then I watched as Aubrayo Franklin, Takeo Spikes, Manny Lawson, Travis LaBoy and Nate Clements either walked out or found themselves cut by a new coaching staff that had its’ own ideas of what personnel fitted in with what they wanted to. Somewhere along the way, this change led me to picking the Cardinals to win the division. I’m here to admit I was wrong. Horribly wrong.
But it’s not just enough for me to hold my hands up. I need to tell you why I was wrong, and that means taking a look at a unit that may be the most valuable in the entire league. The San Francisco 49ers defense.
Now everyone knows about Patrick Willis and to a lesser degree Justin Smith, but there are a number of other players also stepping up. So unit by unit, let’s break them down.
There isn’t a better place to start than on the defensive line, where we have the aforementioned Justin Smith (+22.4), as well as Ray McDonald (+16.9) leading the way. The defensive ends in base, both kick inside in the nickel, with the results being extremely impressive. You only need to look at the raw pass rushing statistics to see how good these two have been, with Smith (five sacks, five hits and 26 pressures) and McDonald (four sacks, four hits and 17 pressures) being ranked 1st and 3rd of all 3-4 ends respectively in the cumulative pressure totals.
Those numbers don’t lie and add some quantifiable evidence to what Smith and McDonald have been doing to members of the opposing offensive line all year; destroying them in the passing game. It’s not quite as easy to throw a number at what both men have done in run defense (where they both have a +4.9 rating; tied for second highest rating). so to let you know how well they have played we need to look at some textbook plays from the duo, so let’s go back to Week 6 against the Lions, where Smith was at his best.
The right defensive end had nine positively graded plays in the game, including five plays where he beat a man to pick up a tackle for a short gain. He set the tone early, where, with the Lions on the 49ers 3-yard line he was able to stand Jeff Backus up, get on his inside shoulder before making a tackle on Jahvid Best to prevent any chance of a touchdown. Just minutes later he stood Dominic Raiola up with his initial burst, pushed him back, and similarly made the tackle for just one yard. He did that whether he was lined up against tackle, guard or center in a virtuoso display that highlighted how impossible he can be to stop.
For McDonald’s success in the run game you really need to look at the first quarter of his game against the Seahawks in Week 1. Three times McDonald got past the outside shoulder of Breno Giacomini to make a tackle for less than two yards. He, like Smith, is a handful on every play and that’s why the 49ers are so reluctant to take them off the field. Smith has played 94.2% of all defensive plays, while McDonald is at 93.6%. Wouldn’t you be reluctant to take Pro Football Focus’ top two graded 3-4 ends off the field when they’re playing so well?
It’s not the biggest surprise in the league that Patrick Willis (+12.7) is playing so well. But after losing Takeo Spikes, you did wonder if the production from the inside linebacker pairing would take a hit. This hasn’t been the case, with NaVorro Bowman (+10.3) exceeding expectations. Bowman has excelled in run defense where he has four tackles for losses, one for no gain and 12 for short gains through six weeks. Going back to the game in Detroit, Bowman was able to beat Brandon Pettigrew at the second level before bring Best down before he could pick up a touchdown. It’s an example of how active Bowman is and why he already has an incredible 31 defensive stops this year.
I shouldn’t need to tell you how good Willis has been, since it’s almost a given. But such a given it is, that sometimes you can take him for granted and not truly appreciate his play as one of, if not the, most complete linebackers in the game. He’s not just a stud in one area, but all of them, able to beat linemen at the second level like he did to Davin Joseph in week five (7:52 left in the 2nd) before making tackles. He can also drop in coverage and match up with tight ends where he was allowed just 60% of balls thrown his way to be caught (while breaking up six passes). Heck, get him rushing the passer and in 24 pass rushes he’s already responded with two hits and four pressures. It’s this complete game that sees Willis our top ranked 3-4 inside linebacker, with Bowman not far behind in fourth.
Outside Pass Rush
Losing half of their outside linebacker rotation may have damaged a unit that always seemed to get pressure. Manny Lawson was always a step away from the quarterback and Travis LaBoy produced the goods in the nickel defense. But as is often the case with one door closing and another opening, so it has proven. On the left side Ahmad Brooks (+5.8) moved from backup and situational rusher to full time starter, missing just 18 snaps this year, while there has been an immediate impact from rookie Aldon Smith (+6.0) in their nickel defense. The two have combined for eight sacks, five hits and 27 pressures, and while Brooks’ penalty count (six) is too high, this unit has actually managed to get more productive. Smith is one to keep an eye out on in particular after his breakout game against the Lions. He tormented Jeff Backus all throughout the game as the Lions three receiver set saw him on the field for a career high 63 snaps. While they might not be superstars like the four other mentioned players, they are doing their jobs very well.
While the defensive backs haven’t been terrible for the 49ers, there is one player who has stood out. Just three months ago cornerback Carlos Rogers (+9.6) was without a home, and now he is our top ranked cornerback in the NFC, and he’s done it by doing two simple things you want from a cornerback; prevent the offense from making big plays, and making big plays on your own.
Incredibly he has allowed only 1.1 yards per play in coverage while just 58.7% of passes thrown his way have been caught at 10.9 yards per catch (both in the top half for corners). His combination of six passes defended and three interceptions is tied for the most in the league (and it would’ve been four interceptions had he decided to use his hands to try catching a ball rather than his face against the Cowboys in a ‘Classic Carlos’ moment). Redskins fans may not want to look at this play, but for those looking for a highlight reel play to back up his performance go to the start of the second quarter of the 49ers game against the Bucs. Rogers tracks Arrelious Benn 20 yards down field before passing him off, picks up on Kellen Winslow entering his zone as Josh Freeman is releasing the ball, then undercuts it and returns it for a touchdown (after making some nice moves). Rogers earned his reputation as a cornerback who couldn’t catch, and all of a sudden seems to have fixed that problem while putting on the best six game stretch of play during his entire career.
There are still some areas of concern, no doubt. Isaac Sopoaga (-1.4) on the nose is no Aubrayo Franklin, and Parys Haralson (+1.3) looks positively pedestrian compared to his colleagues in the front seven. In the secondary you’re always close to giving up a big play with Donte Whitner (-1.1) and Dashon Goldson (-1.5), with Goldson displaying this fragility as he bit hard on a double move by Nate Burleson when the Lion picked up a TD on the 49ers. So before you go crowning this defense, know there is room for improvement.
But every team has weak links so rather than dwell on that we should celebrate the defense of the surprise NFC team of 2011, because it’s down to them that the 49ers are one of only three teams to have lost no more than one game. If they keep up this level of play then they’ll usher their team into the playoffs and, with a defense playing this mean, who knows what they can do? I was wrong about them once, and I won’t be so quick to write them off again. They’re my MVU after all.
Follow us on Twitter: @ProFootbalFocus