Willis and Bowman have keyed crushing run defense
The 49ers have the undisputed No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL – and all it did was backfire on them during last week’s come-from-ahead overtime loss to Dallas. The Niners quickly smoldered the Cowboys on the ground, only to get burned on the back end for doing so, but that meltdown in the secondary won’t change San Francisco’s defensive script or stop that unit from focusing on what it does best.
And that’s setting the tone of the game and gaining control of the line of scrimmage with unyielding run defense.
The 49ers did it against Seattle in the opener, building a 16-0 lead before the Seahawks rallied through the air.
The 49ers did it against Dallas last week, building a 14-0 lead before the Cowboys rallied through the air.
Notice a pattern there?
Actually, it’s the kind of pattern the Niners are attempting to establish in every game.
Let inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman – the rock’em, sock’em newcomer to the defense’s starting front seven – explain:
“We know that teams like to come in and establish the run first to open up the pass,” Bowman told NinersDigest this week. “We take that as a challenge. Our goal at the beginning of every game is to stop the run, and once you do that, you kind of make a team one-dimensional. That’s what we harp on when we start game-preparing early in the week – stop the run first, and then see what they can do in the passing game.”
The 49ers are stopping the run, all right.
They allowed just 64 yards rushing to the Seahawks and 45 to the Cowboys, and their average of 54.5 yards yielded on the ground per game leads the NFL. The 49ers are allowing just 2.5 yards rushing per carry, a figure that also ranks No. 1 in the league.
And it’s been a collaborative effort. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga is absorbing blockers and holding the point of attack, allowing inside linebackers Bowman and Patrick Willis to swarm to the football. Ends Ray McDonald and Justin Smith also are clogging space when they’re not making plays on their own, allowing outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson to set the edge on running downs.
It has added up to a defense that’s stopping opponents stone-cold on the ground.
The problem is, then they get to see what opponents can do when forced to go to the air.
That hasn’t been pretty. Forced to pass, Seattle threw for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the second half to creep within 19-17 late in the game before the 49ers, with lots of help from return specialist Ted Ginn Jr., pulled away for the win.
It got downright ugly against Dallas. Tony Romo had 185 of the Cowboys’ 432 total passing yards on Dallas’ final three possessions to rally the Cowboys from a 10-point deficit with 11:12 remaining to a 27-24 victory in overtime.
That finish has stuck with the 49ers all week, because the team’s aggressive 3-4 scheme pretty much slapped the Cowboys around up front, allowing Bowman (game-high 10 tackles) and Willis (nine tackles) to fly to the football and stop Cowboys runners in their tracks.
But the guys up front who’ve been responsible for that No. 1 ranking against the run have been backed up by a secondary that was embarrassed in the Dallas debacle and has been largely responsible for the team’s No. 25 ranking in passing defense. The Niners this week slipped all the way to No. 17 in the NFL rankings for total defense after they were No. 4 in that category after Week 1.
The 49ers will try to do something about it on the back end this week with the addition of safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Shawntae Spencer into the secondary rotation.
Goldson did not play in San Francisco’s first two games due to a knee injury, and Spencer has played only a handful of defensive snaps as he gradually works his way back from a summer hamstring injury. Both veterans carried streaks of 32 consecutive starts with the 49ers into this season.
Goldson said Friday that he expects to return to the starting lineup against the Bengals, and Spencer might not be far behind. The return of the rangy, ball-hawking Goldson to patrol the deep middle will be a welcome addition.
When asked by NinersDigest about the defense’s strong play up front, Goldson said it was almost difficult for him to watch from the bench the past two weeks only to see the secondary crumble at the end of games.
“They’ve been doing that pretty much since I got here,” said Goldson, a fifth-year veteran. “They’ve been a force for us, and they’re one of the strongest points on this football team. As long as we keep that up, our secondary, we’re going to step up and stop the pass. As long as they stop the run and make teams one-dimensional, we can win games like that.”
And they can lose games like that – example: Dallas – unless the secondary holds up its part of the bargain.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio isn’t dwelling on the shortcomings in the secondary, and he said last week’s collapse was more a product of Romo and his receivers making plays in crunch time rather than San Francisco giving the game away.
Fangio already was looking ahead to this week’s game at Cincinnati, where the 49ers will come at the Bengals with the same defensive approach. Fangio expects more of a ground challenge from a Cincinnati attack that features Cedric Benson, who ranks ninth in the NFL with 180 yards rushing.
“We’re confident that we can play the run and we’d like to think that we do a good job stopping it,” Fangio said. “We expect that to be a strength of our team, and we need it to be going forward. But we’ll be tested more this week. These guys run it better than the first two teams that we’ve played, so we’ll see exactly where we stand after this game.”
And as the Niners make their stand against the Bengals, they’ll be looking for a little more – or a lot more – support this time on the back end.