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.
Since Week 10, the 49ers have blitzed less than 20 percent of the time, but have a top-five pressure rate and a top-five sack rate, per Pro Football Focus. They are the only team in the NFL that can boast that kind of pass-rush production from their defensive line.
All this, while stopping the run at a high rate?
That’s mighty impressive. It might even be championship-caliber football.
Remember: rush four, drop seven was the formula that nearly won the Niners the Super Bowl at the end of the 2019 season. Now, it’s the formula that has saved the Niners’ 2021 season and put them on the cusp of a second Super Bowl appearance in three years.
“Overall, our guys just continued to get better working together,” Ryans said. “It’s just a matter of getting reps. We had a lot of new guys we added ot our team. Those guys just had to get more familiar, more comfortable with what we’re asking them to do.”
But it no doubt helps, that starting cornerback Emmanuel Moseley returned to the lineup in Week 18, and that rookie Ambry Thomas has come into his own as an outside corner late in the season.
The great play of the Niners’ safeties, Jimmie Ward and Jacquaski Tartt, deserves a shout-out, too.
Oh, and the best linebacker core in the NFL, led by Fred Warner — who after a tough start to the season, looks like an All-Pro again — deserves one as well.
This defense has the right scheme and the right bodies. It’s a formidable unit — one that has proven capable of being some of the best offenses in the NFL and giving the Niners’ sputtering offense a chance to win every game.
Yes, it might be a bit old-school — defense leading the way — but with this kind of defense, old-school makes sense.
The Niners’ resurgent defense has also made Ryans, 37, the hottest name in the NFL this week when it came to head coaching jobs. He’s the odds on favorite around the league to land the vacant Vikings job whenever the Niners’ season ends. That could be a few weeks from now, though.
In the preseason, I made the bold prediction that this 49ers’ defense had a chance to be one of the franchise’s all-time greats. I loved the talent I saw in training camp and Ryans had a sterling reputation amongst Niners players and coaches.
But, let’s be honest, I was looking pretty dumb there for a while.
It’s not such a ridiculous take anymore, though.
Now, maybe Ryans’ defense hasn’t reached that level of all-time great yet, but if the season ends with the Niners holding the Lombardi Trophy, that would have to change.
History is written by the victors. Right now, this incredible, resurgent, perhaps historically great Niners’ defense holds the pen.