Can defense win a Super Bowl? The Niners think so

In the era of Patrick Mahomes and spread offenses, can defenses still win championships?

The 49ers still think so. And they might just have the defense to do it.

The ups and downs of the 49ers season have been well documented, and lost in that roller-coaster ride has been the steady rise of the 49ers’ defense.

Over the last four weeks — all must-win games for San Francisco — the Niners’ defense has been the backbone of the team’s success.

The numbers are staggering. The 49ers’ defense, against the Rams, Cowboys (NFL’s No. 1 regular-season offense), Packers (led by presumptive NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers), and, ok, the lowly Texans, too, have been downright dominant.

Eighteen sacks. Three yards per carry. Four interceptions and a fumble recovery. Fewer than 200 passing yards allowed per contest. Opponents converting 43 percent of third downs.

This is one impressive defense.

And while questions remain about the Niners’ offensive ability heading into the NFC Championship Game Sunday in Los Angeles, there should be no question that this San Francisco defense is elite.

That wasn’t always the case. Remember, this defense was cooked by a Colt McCoy-led Arizona Cardinals in Week 9.

There was always going to be a learning curve for first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, and injuries, particularly in the secondary, didn’t help that process.

Whether it was necessity or inspiration, Ryans has changed this defense in the second half of the year and playoffs, eliminating what the Niners cannot do and highlighting what they do well.

Ryans, like any new coordinator, wanted to put his mark on the Niners’ defense early in the season. San Francisco had been a Cover-3, zone-heavy team under Robert Saleh, and Ryans ran more man-to-man defenses earlier in the season in an effort to blitz more.

Call it youthful exuberance.

But that stopped after the Cardinals game.

The Niners have gone back to the zone and that change, plus some schematic creativity up front, alongside better play and better health, have turned the Niners from an average defense into an excellent one at the exact right time in the season.

The move to zone defense was critical for the Niners, as they were one of the worst man-to-man defensive teams in the league. Down both their starting cornerbacks from the start of the season, they simply didn’t have the guys who could cover the NFL’s top — and not-so-top — receivers one-on-one.

Zone protected the Niners’ secondary a bit. But the only way zone would work is if the 49ers’ defensive line could manufacture pressure.

They have done just that.

The elite Nick Bosa, the resurgent Arik Armstead, who has moved to the inside full-time (the best spot for him), and a steady rotation of top tradesman linemen have made the 49ers’ four-man defensive line the envy of the league.

The Niners are blitzing rarely — Ryans doesn’t bring extra men towards the quarterback unless he feels he’ll really have the element of surprise — and yet they’re getting outstanding pressure on opposing quarterbacks, speeding them up and giving the zone coverage a chance to make plays.

“I call it, but it’s not about the call. It’s about those guys executing,” Ryans told the media Thursday.

And they are doing just that.

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