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

November.

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

turnovers.

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

it.”

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

run.

”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

trophy.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org