Healthy 49ers defense ready for playoff run
There is a much different feeling and outlook for the San
Francisco 49ers defense this December than a year ago.
The unit is again ranked near the top of the NFL in several
major defensive categories, but instead of limping toward the end
of the season, San Francisco is surging to the finish.
”Healthy plus hungry,” safety Donte Whitner said. ”Hopefully
it equals Super Bowl.”
The Niners are as healthy as they have been this season, and
there is little question the veteran, star-laden unit is hungry.
San Francisco has been dominant on the defensive side of the ball
during a four-game winning streak that dates to the end of
The 49ers limited Tampa Bay last week to 183 total yards, the
fewest the NFL’s third-ranked defense has allowed this season. It
was a performance typical of their recent play as the 49ers
harassed Mike Glennon, who was sacked four times, and forced two
The 49ers will try to continue that momentum Monday against
Atlanta in a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship. San
Francisco would clinch a playoff berth for the third consecutive
season with a win in the final game played at Candlestick Park or
with an Arizona loss to Seattle on Sunday.
”We’re playing like we’ve always played,” said defensive
coordinator Vic Fangio, whose unit finished last season ranked
third in the NFL. ”We do have some new guys that have filtered in
there, but a lot of the same guys are playing.
”They’re playing confident and fast like you would expect being
in the same system basically for three years.”
Though the rankings are similar, San Francisco’s defense was in
a much worse place last year. The 49ers lost All-Pro defensive
tackle Justin Smith to a torn triceps in Week 15, and he wasn’t the
same dominant player when he returned for the team’s playoff opener
four weeks later.
Beginning with Smith’s injury, the 49ers allowed an average of
29.6 points over their final six games, including the playoffs, a
stretch that ended with San Francisco’s 34-31 loss to Baltimore in
the Super Bowl.
The 49ers are much better now, with Smith healthy and drawing
double teams in the trenches. All-Pro outside linebacker Aldon
Smith is also back in form and causing havoc next to him.
The Smiths combined for three sacks last week against the
Buccaneers, continuing a trend in which San Francisco has lead the
NFL in sacks per play since Week 12.
Aldon Smith returned two weeks before that after missing five
games to do a stint in rehab, and All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis
also missed two games during that stretch. The 49ers haven’t been
the same since they returned.
”I hope I’ve had something to do with it,” said Aldon Smith,
who set a franchise record with 19.5 sacks last season.
Smith has 8.5 sacks in nine games this season to share the team
lead with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
”We’re better now and healthier, and with guys being together,
we just know more than we knew last year,” he said. ”Hopefully we
can get that mental and physical together and make a run for
Seven of San Francisco’s defensive starters made the Pro Bowl or
an All-Pro team last season. With rookie first-round draft pick
Eric Reid filling in capably for departed All-Pro Dashon Goldson at
free safety, the 49ers are loaded and ready for another playoff
”Things never get easier, you just get better,” Whitner said.
”And that’s why we’re playing the way we play. That’s why guys are
communicating the way we are.
”We’re really playing good football right now. We’re in better
shape now than we were last year and we want to get that
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