San Francisco 49ers  

 

Niners' front seven too much for any NFL offense to handle

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Pierre Thomas' body did more than a 180. Donte Whitner's blow went right through the Saints tailback, spinning him around on the wheel of misfortune. Call it about a 210, roughly.

It was a blunt trauma-induced pirouette uglier than all things Tonya Harding. Thomas knocked backward ... ball comes out ... first-and-10, San Francisco. That's how the Niners' trip to the NFC Championship Game was born.

The 49ers' victory over the Saints, as well as their 13-3 regular-season record, was a triumph of defense in the modern NFL. Yes, Drew Brees would put up numbers, but the Niners defense kept the Saints behind the 8-ball most of the game.

On the next offensive series, the Saints met more frustration. First, right outside linebacker Parys Haralson was all over a short pass to Darren Sproles. Incomplete. Second down: Navorro Bowman and Justin Smith gave Chris Ivory and the Saints ground game all of two yards. Then on third down, rookie Aldon Smith introduced himself to Drew Brees, sacking him for an 11-yard loss. How does fourth-and-19 sound?

So much for the rules-induced, nerf football-happy, spasmodic offenses of 2011. That goes for the Giants this weekend, too. Big Blue's offense faces the stiffest challenge this weekend since Week 10, when the Giants lost to these same 49ers. Can New York's front line do a better job than the Saints or the rest of the league has against this insanely good San Francisco defense?

Maybe. But I'd take San Francisco's front seven over any in pro football. The guys in red and gold are a mismatch for every team's offensive line, quarterback and running back.

Look no further than the guys mentioned above, starting with Bowman. What a player. He has excellent range, is a good tackler and only 23 years old. No wonder he was named first-team All-Pro this season.

"Bo has had a tremendous season. It's been a joy to play beside him," linebacker Patrick Willis said Wednesday. "He's brought so much to this defense, just from being able to handle backs one-on-one or just being able to play in the box by himself at times behind the D-Line. He's just been phenomenal."

Those coverage skills, along with playing the run, are evidenced by eight passes defensed and 136 tackles in his first full season as a starter.

Justin Smith had a better season than any 3-4 based lineman in the league. He had 7.5 sacks despite consistent double teams in a defense in which he's not supposed to get sacks. He also forced three fumbles, and along with Willis is the point person on the defense.

And like Willis on Bowman, coach Jim Harbaugh had only praise for his veteran defensive end.

49ers defense, 2011 season
Category Total NFL rank
Points per game 14.3 2nd
1st downs per game 16.7 2nd
Red-zone drives allowed 34 2nd
Rush yards per game 77.3 1st
Rush TD allowed 3 1st
Takeaways 38 1st (tie)
Plays of 0 yards after catch 75 2nd

"Whenever you have a leader like Justin Smith, one of your best players, your hardest worker, your fiercest competitor, that bodes really well for your football team ... everybody sees it. Their antennas are up, and they watch the way he practices. They watch the way he prepares for games. They watch the way he plays through some nagging hurts. It sets a tremendous tone, a tremendous example for our football team."

But what about the other Smith -- Aldon -- who had 14 sacks as a rookie? The dude doesn't even start.

Really, the 49ers' brilliance in the front seven doesn't begin with him either, which is the main reason, alongside the Harbaugh effect, that this team will be playing for a berth in Super Bowl XLVI. That's because the guy who plays next to Bowman is the best defensive player in pro football.

Sorry, DeMarcus Ware, Patrick Willis is the man.

But you've already heard of him. So how about outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (seven sacks), who can rush the passer or be a force in the run game? Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga has been steady in the middle and allowed the club to cut ties with the more expensive Aubrayo Franklin. And Ray McDonald -- who was thought to be the weak link -- has been better than advertised with 5.5 sacks and several clutch plays from his left end position. His greatest strength is his versatility, often playing inside so that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio can put Aldon Smith on the end in a four-man front.

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Sacks and big plays are tough to come by from the big boys like McDonald in the 3-4, as the scheme is designed for the outside backers to get pressure and inside guys to flow to the ball. Not only has that system worked, but by allowing the fewest points in the NFC, and tying for the league lead in takeaways (38), Fangio's unit has thrived.

Many of those takeaways are the result of a secondary that's played cohesively, and like McDonald, better than advertised. Corner Carlos Rogers was never known for making big plays, but he made enough this season (six INTs) to be voted to the Pro Bowl. Safety Dashon Goldson also picked off six passes, deflected nine, and only allowed 28 completions. He too made the Pro Bowl. The secondary often immediately gets receivers' butts on the ground after they do catch the ball.

Isn't it ironic? Weren't the 49ers always considered an offensive-minded, "finesse" team, as opposed to a power-running, smash-you-in-the-mouth defensive team?

"You've gotta be who you are," says former 49ers All-Pro center Randy Cross. "And if your talent tells you that's what you should be, then that's what you run ... and you have to take your hat off to what Jim (Harbaugh) did, because Jim has had a very low-risk offense, up until the last couple of months, and a stifling style of defense. Why wouldn't you be that way?"

Exactly. San Francisco has as much talent -- fully realized talent, mind you -- on the defensive side of the ball as any team in the league. Being who they are got them to the championship game and could very well put them on top of the NFC this weekend.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.

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