Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports



In the 49ers' 12-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, free safety Jimmie Ward returned from his hamstring injury, and it didn't take long for him to get back to work. On 3rd-and-8, on Seattle's first possession of the game, quarterback Russell Wilson dumped the ball to running back C.J. Prosise who quickly got up field for a nine-yard gain and a first down before being tackled by Ward. What was notable about the play was the tackle itself. Because he was moved to the cornerback position after college, and is relatively small in stature, people tend to forget how physical of a player Ward is. Prosise is listed at 6'1" and 225 pounds. Ward is listed at 5'11" and 193 pounds. That's a 32 pound difference if you're counting at home. Ward didn't go low and cut Prosise's legs out from under him. He put his shoulder into his chest and when they met, all of Prosise's progress stopped: immediately. Ward drove him into the ground and grinded him into the turf a bit as if to announce that there would be no easy yards in this game.

On the very next play, Wilson threw the ball out to the left to tight end Jimmy Graham, who appeared to have an easy catch for another first down when safety Jaquiski Tartt came whizzing into the frame and delivered a jarring shot, which separated Graham from the ball as he fell to the ground with a thud. Consider the tone set.

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The 49ers defensive line was able to get consistent pressure on Wilson all day, sacking him three times and hurrying and hitting him well over a dozen others. Let's be clear: Seattle's offensive line is a mess and that's reason to temper the enthusiasm slightly, however, the 49ers offensive line was thought to be pretty bad coming into this game as well, but quarterback Brian Hoyer was under nowhere near the pressure that Wilson was while facing Seattle's fierce pass rush. Although Wilson was able to rip off some significant gains running the ball, he was not efficient (12 carries for 34 yards), and he was unable to buy extra time in the way that he's done in previous games against the Niners.

In recent games, Wilson's broken plays would turn into something straight out of a football follies video as Wilson would weave in and out of the 49ers' defense as helpless pass rushers reached out, constantly grasping only air. He would reset, run, reset, run and continue that pattern until he was ready to either deliver the ball or finally take off running past the line of scrimmage. There was none of that in this game. The 49ers rushed as a team, maintaining discipline in their lanes, and they were fast enough to make Wilson have to make a decision immediately. He either got rid of the ball, or took off running, but he was unable to wreak havoc with his usual time-buying tactics. Even on his game-winning, nine-yard pass to wide receiver Paul Richardson, where he was able to buy time in that fashion, DeForest Buckner was there to hit Wilson immediately as he delivered the ball. It was simply a great play by a great quarterback, which is going to happen at times to any defense.

Like the 2012 group that ultimately led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, this group is both fast and physical at all levels. That group had absolute monsters in the front seven with Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Justin Smith and then-rookie Aldon Smith. Ahmad Brooks was also the best version of himself and Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga proved to be very capable in their roles as well. Because this group is a base 4-3 instead of 3-4 defense, it is composed differently and has most of the beef on the defensive line with Buckner, Arik Armstead and rookie Solomon Thomas. Yesterday, they were all effective and flashed a mixture of power and speed that justified their respective first-round selections. Buckner earned the game ball from Pro Football Focus for his stellar play. Bowman is back playing at a very high level after his Achilles injury, and like McDonald and Sopoaga from the 2012 team, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and linebacker Eli Harold have shown that they can be solid contributors and do their jobs. Linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong, filling in for the injured Reuben Foster, has also been solid and helped keep up his end of the bargain well. After what we saw from Foster prior to his injury, we should expect the entire group to take a leap forward when he returns, as his athleticism and sideline to sideline speed are able to help conceal mistakes when they are made. Wilson would have had an even harder time once he broke the pocket yesterday with Foster on the field, and that's for sure.

As is the case with this group, the secondary on the 2012 squad, specifically the cornerback position, was considered the question mark. Free agent acquisition Carlos Rogers became a surprise Pro Bowler, and Tarell Brown was steady. Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson have done a good job thus far of limiting the wide receivers on opposing teams and preventing big plays. Rogers however was extremely savvy and knew all of the nuances and tricks of the trade when it came to playing corner. Robinson will hopefully gain that ability the more he is on the field. Panthers #1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin was limited to one reception for 25 yards last week. Seahawks #1 receiver Doug Baldwin had six catches, but for a total of only 44 yards. At 6'1" and 6'2", respectively, Robinson and Johnson are bigger than Rogers and Brown, which adds another dimension when dealing with their lengths.

The starting safeties on that 2012 team were Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. Who could forget the fear that they instilled in opposing receivers with the ferocious hits that they laid down on a consistent basis? Pass coverage was not the strongest aspect of their games though. This group, with Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt is also physical, but not quite as physical as Goldson and Whitner. However, this group appears to be better in coverage and that's a tradeoff worth accepting. Tartt and Ward were among the top five 49ers' players in yesterday's game according to Pro Football Focus.

If the 49ers had won the Super Bowl in 2012, that defense would easily be mentioned as one of the greatest of all-time, so it's not fair to suggest that this group is as good as its predecessor. That would be premature. However, an objective look at the talent on the field and its combination of size, speed and athleticism warrants at least a comparison. As the young talent gets more and more comfortable in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh's system, it's not far-fetched to expect this group to be a top-five defense.