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It's there, omnipresent, slowly bubbling to the surface. You can hear it in passing comments from fans and detractors alike. "The 49ers gave up how many yards?" "I thought Nolan was a defensive coach, so why is your defense so bad?" And my personal favorite, "Didn't Dennis Erickson have better stats after 5 weeks?"
Let's get one thing straight; the 49ers are not going to win the Super Bowl this year. It would be an amazing feat if they were able to make the playoffs (Sorry Mike, but the whole Division Title thing is a nothing more than a motivational tool and you know it.) Nevertheless, the defense is the strength of this team. And despite the statistics that say otherwise, the 49er defense is a strong unit that can only get better with time.
Crazy you say? They are ranked last in the NFL, huh?
It makes more sense than you may think.
Defenses in the NFL are ranked based on yards allowed per game. Nothing else. Yes, on that standard alone the 49ers' defense ranks dead last in the NFL. But simply looking at total yards allowed is a terrible way to rank defenses because it in no way factors in the other things that exemplify a defense. Turnovers, sacks, points allowed, points scored, and yards allowed per play are all crucial measures ignored by the current ranking system.
Just looking at the NFL's myopic rankings people expected the 49ers to succumb to the Colts whims and be obliterated by an offense that produces more than Kanye West. And while the box score made it look that way, actually watching the game left another impression.
Peyton Manning, Mr. Touchdown Machine himself, threw more interceptions (2) than touchdowns (1). The 49ers defense kept his quarterback rating at 82.6, his second lowest rating of the season and nearly 10 points below Manning's career average. Bruce Thornton, who was on the practice squad a week a go, was able to corral Marvin Harrison, arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL, and hold him to only two catches for 17 yards. Moreover the defense only allowed two plays of 20 yards or more, one through the air and one on the ground. Bottom line, the Colts had to earn their yards; they were not simply handed over.
While the scoreboard looked lopsided, it didn't become so until late in the 4th quarter when Manning connected with Troy Walters for an 18-yard score. Up until then the 49ers held the NFL's most potent offense to 14 points. The defense allowed 21 points during the game since Indy's stifling defense produced one touchdown off of an interception. Holding Manning, Harrison, Wayne, Stokley and James to two touchdowns until late in the game is a feat. Just ask the Tennessee "Peyton threw four touchdowns on us" Titans, who are ranked 13th in the NFL in yards allowed.
Remember though, that the 49ers managed all this with only two regular starters in their defensive backfield since three of their top corners, Plummer, Rumph, and Middlebrooks were out with injuries. They were also without Julian Peterson, their best player, for much of the game. Throw a couple of practice squad players in the mix and you have a recipe for an offensive clinic by the Colts. That's not what ended up happening.
Even more impressive than the play of the defensive backfield was that the 49ers forced three turnovers and a sack against a team that had only turned the ball over twice in the previous four games and allowed zero sacks all season. One of those turnovers occurred on the goal line when Jeff Ulbrich stripped Edgerrin James of the ball, and in doing so, prevented a score. That's nothing new though, as this season the 49ers are tied for 4th in the NFL in takeaways, securing 5 interceptions and recovering 6 fumbles. They even lead the NFL in defensive touchdowns (3) and are tied for 5th in the NFL with 15 sacks.
When you put all of that together what do you get? You get a defense that plays hard, pursues the ball, and puts up a fight. This is a defense that puts the team in a position to win games early (ala the Cowboys debacle) but is almost always exhausted at the end of a game because of an inept and inefficient offense.
The good news is that the defense isn't even playing at full strength. Slowly but surely the starters will return. As the season progresses the defensive schemes will become more complex and harder for opposing teams to read. Hopefully the offense will be able to get into a rhythm and hang onto the ball longer than a few minutes and it will be then that the defense will get the respect that they deserve.
When all is said and done, the 49er defense is a middle of the pack defense. They still need to find a way to get off the field on third down and to tighten the defensive vice in the 4th quarter. But they are by no means the last defense in the NFL. With some time you will see, the 49ers defense will rise above their ranking.
That is...if they haven't already.