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Niners improved in many ways, but defense still leads charge

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The Jim Harbaugh effect and quarterback Alex Smith's strong season have been important to the 49ers' surprising 9-1 start, but the baseline for everything has been the play of the defense.

That's been the crutch for years, yes, but the 49ers haven't won like they're winning now.

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This defense is the dog wagging the team.

It's continued the streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher (32 games) but it's taken things a step further by not allowing a rushing touchdown all season. At Week 12, that's a stunning distinction but to 49ers players, it's more of a trend that better not end anytime soon, especially Thursday night against the Ravens and running back Ray Rice.

"If a guy gets 10 yards or five yards on a run, we're in the huddle like, 'What the heck happened?,'" linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "We don't have numerous drives or numerous runs on us and not try to fix the problem then and there."

Bowman said new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has tweaked the base 3-4 defense to let players' athleticism be more of a factor. Those tweaks also have resulted in Bowman emerging as the team's leading tackler -- not All-Pro Patrick Willis. Even so, it is Willis who still makes the "Wow" plays, including two sacks and a team-high four forced fumbles.

Despite the changes, pride is the most important nuance in defending the run game.

"We played the Giants and they got a few runs and after every single series, we were like, 'We've got to pick it up,'" Bowman said. "We keep holding on to that, not allowing a 100-yard rusher. If we think a team is starting to get the run game working, we put our foot in the ground."

As for stopping Rice (eight rushing touchdowns) -- he's also Baltimore's leading receiver (51 receptions) --, Bowman said, "Every team is trying to get the ball into their guy's hands. We know that. We're just going to approach the game with the same mindset that they're going to try to establish the run. It's not going to be an easy game and it will be a challenge for us. We're up to it. We want to play against the best, and in order to beat the man, we've got to stop 'The Man.'"

Though Bowman has become a focal point, he makes no bones that the defense is playing at a high level for two reasons: Everyone is doing his job and not freelancing; and Willis and Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith are leading and keeping players in line.

Said Bowman: "The coaches do a great job making sure we understand what we're supposed to do. The D-line knows what we're going to do. We know what the D-line and the DBs are doing to do. The DBs know what everyone in front of them is going to do. All three phases are in cahoots."

As for Willis and Smith: "Serious. They're serious. It's serious. Not every minute or hour is serious but when it comes to football and preparation and practice and making sure we're on the same page, they're serious. They're great leaders and we all make sure we do what we're supposed to do and that we have the right approach."

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