The face of one of the NFL’s most exciting teams is quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the electrifying, second-year budding superstar. But the 49ers’ soul is their defense, and eight days before the NFC championship game, that’s what Smith wanted you to understand.
It has brought the 49ers this close for the second consecutive year. But can it close the deal this time?
Said the second-year linebacker: “We’re a team that can rise to the occasion.”
When it has risen, it is because the defense is strong and complete. Defensive tackle Justin Smith missed the final two regular season games with an arm injury, and in the first of those games, the 49ers allowed 42 points to Seattle. He’s not healthy now, but he’s at least healthy enough to play. This is a relief to his teammates and to San Francisco fans, because when this defense is whole, it is one of the NFL’s best.
According to the statistics analysis Web site ProFootballFocus.com, the 49ers have the league’s second-best total defense, and their best skill is stopping the run. That forces teams, particularly those with traditional offenses, to pass more frequently, and that’s when defenders like Aldon Smith excel. He finished the regular season with 19.5 sacks, second in the leagueonly to Houston’s J.J. Watt. In November, Smith had 5.5 sacks against Chicago.
So it stands to reason why he and his teammates might’ve been eager to test themselves against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, and not have to think through another rematch against Seattle — even if it meant going on the road. The Seahawks and rookie quarterback Russell Wilson had more success running the football on the 49ers than any opponent, averaging 156 rushing yards in two games against their division rival. That number was far higher than the 94.2-yard average San Francisco surrendered throughout the regular season — and a reason that, the night before the Seahawks played the Falcons in the divisional round, Smith’s scouting report for Seattle sounded like this:
“Just not do what we did last time,” he said.
Not that Atlanta makes things much easier. The Seahawks torched the 49ers in their final meeting, but at least Wilson and Marshawn Lynch were the threats San Francisco knew. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio hadn’t studied Atlanta closely until this week, and there’s mystery in an offense with such versatility. The Falcons’ three Pro Bowlers on offense are quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Julio Jones. The roster for Honolulu doesn’t even mention wide receiver Roddy White, who had 92 receptions for a team-high 1,351 receiving yards.
“You’ve got to have a good plan and a good mix to stop this offense,” Fangio said last week. “. . . They have good weapons all over the place.”
Gonzalez represents the most complicated of those, and the responsibility of getting in the future Hall of Famer’s way will be on inside linebacker Patrick Willis. Pro Football Focus ranks Willis as the NFL’s best at his position, and he’s particularly skilled in coverage. He has two interceptions, five deflections, and opposing receivers have gained only 355 yards against Willis all season.