In the pass-happy NFL, defense will carry the 49ers only so far

Associated Press/US Presswire
Alex Smith (left) and Frank Gore have helped lead the Niners to a surprising 5-1 start to the season.


It's unfortunate the incident between Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz overshadowed one of the best defensive performances I have seen this year. Vic Fangio, the defensive coordinator for the 49ers, made one of the hottest quarterbacks in the game look very uncomfortable last Sunday in Detroit.

Matthew Stafford never seemed to get into any type of rhythm, and it was because of the creative and spot-on pressure provided by the 49ers front. For the most part, the 49ers only had to commit four or five defenders to the Lions' running game. This allowed them to bottle up Calvin Johnson -- if you can call seven receptions for 113 yards bottled up -- while holding Jahvid Best to 37 yards on 12 carries. This after Best had gone off for 163 yards against the Bears the previous week.

In what may have been the most telling of stats, however, the 49ers held the Lions to 11 drives of five or fewer plays.

In a quarterback-driven league where 300-yard games are becoming the norm, it's refreshing to see a team winning the old fashion way of playing great defense and running the ball. It is the same formula my Ravens used to win a Super Bowl title in 2000. Unfortunately for the 49ers, they are going to eventually need Alex Smith to win a couple of games with his arm.

When we won our championship, there was a void of great quarterback play in the league. Running the ball well, and not turning it over, was enough to augment our great defense. At the time, the Elways, Marinos, Montanas and Aikmans of the world were transitioning out of the game, and we were a few years away from the emergence of the great quarterbacks of today.

But it's different day now. If the 49ers are truly going to be a championship team this year, they are eventually going to have to face someone who will make it a track meet and their offense is going to have to respond. They have the skill players to do it in Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards -- if he gets healthy.

Smith has to prove he can orchestrate that skill group to get it done. I'm not saying that he can't, but he just hasn't yet.

What would Brady do?

It's hard to not be impressed with the way Cam Newton is playing. I was fortunate enough to call his Week 4 game against the Bears, and I was blown away with not only his athletic ability, but also his comfort level in the pocket and his familiarity of the offense. He has brought a truly unique skill set to the quarterback position, all the while beginning to develop the skills that it will take for him to become a championship caliber QB.

That being said, I was disappointed to see his histrionics in the end zone after scoring against the Falcons last Sunday, and subsequently watched him throw two more interceptions in the second half to finish with three for the game.

I understand it was a touchdown that put his team ahead by three points midway through the third quarter, but this is a team that was 1-4 at the time and sitting in the cellar of the NFC South. I know he has to be true to himself and be his own man -- he cannot pretend to be someone else. However, as you run through the really great quarterbacks we have in our league right now (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning,), all of them have earned their chops with championships (minus Rivers). All six have a body of work that few men can claim.

Can you really see any of those guys acting like that? Sure, Aaron Rodgers does his championship belt hand motion, but that was started in the heart of a Super Bowl run and now continues as his team is 6-0 and is the only undefeated team remaining in the league. As Cam Newton continues to develop into a Super Bowl caliber quarterback -- and there is no reason to doubt that he will -- he should consider what a true pro looks like once he gets there.

A Thing of Beauty

After calling the Eagles-Redskins game this past Sunday, I was able to get home early enough to catch three quarters of the wonderfully entertaining Cowboys-Patriots tilt.


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I am on record and have said multiple times throughout this season, that if I had only one quarterback to choose right now it would be Aaron Rodgers. Certainly his efficient performance against the Rams, especially in the first half in which he averaged 16 yards per attempt, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns did nothing to diminish that opinion. But having the first opportunity to watch Tom Brady run his no-huddle offense live -- rather than on tape -- it was truly an amazing work of art.

The pace with which he operates is nothing less than stunning. While I credit Brady most for being the orchestrator, his offensive teammates and coaching staff definitely deserve some love as well. The no-huddle offense is all about timing and anticipation between a quarterback and his receivers, and it truly takes all 11 men on the field to work as one unit to move the ball. The tempo Brady and his teammates employ seems to be one notch ahead of everyone else.

Defenses tire more easily because of that pace. And as evidenced by another come from behind victory, it was clear to me that the Patriots were more prepared both physically and mentally than the Cowboys in the last seconds of their game. 10 plays, 80 yards. Brilliant!

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick