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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers’ Defense is Becoming Elite Again: 5 Observations about Saints-49ers

Nov 28, 2022 at 3:02 PM--

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This 2022 iteration of the 49ers is endlessly fascinating to watch. One of the best teams in football one week, getting humiliated the next. Back to the future, forward with the past. But as turbulent and ramshackle as it's been, the 49ers are morphing into a team ready to dominate in the playoffs, just as head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have always believed. Here are 5 observations from yesterday's win over the Saints.

1. The Scoreless Streak Extends to 4…

In the second half of the past 4 games, the 49ers haven't allowed a point. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. The Rams, Chargers, Cardinals, and now Saints have all failed to crack the scoreboard once after halftime. While only this last contest has been a pure shutout, that mark remains significant given both the importance of shutting teams down at the end of the 4th quarter, and the ease in which today's NFL offenses can put up inflated numbers in garbage time.
This San Francisco defense, though, has been a nightmare for opposing offenses because of their relentless nature. They've gone 94 minutes and 19 seconds of in-game time between allowing points, now. The tally? Three turnovers on downs, six punts, one interception, two fumbles, one missed field goal, and once reached halftime.

2 …But It Didn't Have To…

6 yards.

That's the difference between a shutout and three different scores from the Saints on Sunday. First, a missed Will Lutz field goal pushed wide left by about a yard that would have gotten the Saints on the scoreboard late in the third quarter. Without a false start call the play before, perhaps the streak ends there. On their next possession, the Saints drove down the field, getting the ball to Alvin Kamara at the 1 yard line before Dre Greenlaw's huge forced fumble gave the ball back to the Niners. And on their last possession, the Saints found themselves back at the 4 yard line before a Nick Bosa sack essentially sealed the game.

It's not nothing that the defense held so sturdily despite such long odds. Credit to their "one blade of grass" mentality, key to keeping zeroes on the board. And it's not as though those plays happened in a vacuum. On the missed field goal, the Saints were initially planning on attempting a 4th and 5, pressured by the defense to try to score a touchdown. Even with the missed field goal, a good outcome for New Orleans was unlikely. And on the final turnover on downs, the Saints simply had no choice but to try to go for broke. It's no coincidence that the 49ers' only sack of the game came on that play, with Andy Dalton forced to hold the ball until Nick Bosa could get home and seal things.

3. …And It Probably Won't Last

Realistically, though, the 49ers will probably allow some points in the second half next game. It's a little more likely that the Niners can pull out some magic and put up two consecutive zeroes in a less constrained manner (perhaps they get out to a fast start, and pitch another first-half shutout?), but fans and bettors probably shouldn't count on it.

Per Numberfire, the Saints had a cumulative EPA (Estimated Points Added) of 8.97 on the plays before all of those near-misses. In other words, an average team would have scored 9 points based on those situations. As mentioned, the 49ers defense deserves credit for putting the Saints in situations where they couldn't take easy points. But that won't always be the case, and a field goal sneaking through in any of those situations would have shattered the 49ers' impressive streak.

Even if it ends next week, more important is how the 49ers perform overall. Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa, leading the Dolphins to Santa Clara next week, hasn't lost a game that he's started and finished. Offensive weapons Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle will stretch the 49ers' secondary, and they'll be supplemented by old friends Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. Ex-49ers' offensive coordinator Mike McDaniels helms an offense that ranks second in the NFL by DVOA.

The 49ers have already been decimated by an elite offense when they faced Kansas City, so how they fare against Miami next week will be a huge tell for their ability to sustain postseason success. Another second-half shoutout would be a huge accomplishment for this defense, but it should be considered a pleasant surprise rather than an expectation if it does happen.

4. Jimmy Goat vs. Jimmy Jesus

At the heart of the 49ers' volatility, not just this week but the past few years, is Jimmy Garoppolo. The controversial quarterback has alternated between magical throws and cringeworthy interceptions, which has largely determined the 49ers' fates. They haven't lost a game this year in which he hasn't been intercepted. Despite a rough start, though, those games have been less frequent nowadays. The 49ers' 4-game winning streak has coincided with a similar no-interception streak from Garoppolo, the longest of his career. That streak almost threatened to rear its head when Garoppolo threw a ball directly to a Saints defender yesterday, but he was bailed out by a defensive holding call. Instead, the day was defined by a miraculous touchdown throw to Jauan Jennings, who leaped for the throw as Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu reached up and deflected the pass. Jennings' concentration allowed him to locate the ball as he fell, though, and he secured it for the only touchdown of the day.

These kinds of throws have defined "good Jimmy," or Jimmy Jesus as he's sometimes called. Despite the low score, Garoppolo's outing saw him put up his eighth game this year with a passer rating above 94.0. If he can maintain that kind of efficiency through the rest of the year, the 49ers will be in a good position to lean on him more than they did in the playoffs in 2019 and 2021. But in that case, red zone production will have to get better - the 49ers' three red zone trips on Sunday resulted in only one touchdown, and one of those possessions resulted in a turnover on downs.

Still, Garoppolo has been an underrated part of an emerging 49ers squad. Since 2017, Garoppolo ranks 4th in the NFL in winning percentage (.679), behind Patrick Mahomes (.795), Lamar Jackson (.746), and Tom Brady (.714). While Garoppolo doesn't possess the elite skills and consistency of those others, he's found a way to be reliably effective. Through his first 59 games in the red and gold, Garoppolo has gone 40-19. Coincidentally, this happens to be the exact same record that Steve Young had, and three games better than Joe Montana's. Garoppolo has been a polarizing figure in the media, but if there's more Jimmy Jesus magic left in him, the 49ers will face a tough decision about what to do at the quarterback position in 2023.

5. Linebackers Leading the Charge

The Niners are buoyed by an insanely talented linebacker corps who are able to execute defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans' scheme flawlessly. After the game, Dre Greenlaw - who punched out and recovered the ball on a goal line stop in the 4th quarter - referenced the continuity in that position group. Ryans had been the 49ers' linebacker position coach before his promotion to defensive coordinator, and with Greenlaw, Warner, and Azeez Al-Shaair all having played more or less continuously with each other since 2019, the coordination between that group has paid dividends.

That coordination has fueled a defense that's been less efficient (the Saints crossed midfield five times, and within the 30 yard line thrice) than it's been effective, with two forced fumbles and no points allowed on Sunday. It's certainly a different defense than in 2019, when the team never got gouged for points until it lost essentially its entire secondary, but when all's said and done, it may be even better.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

1 Comment

  • D. Carter
    You mean Talanoa Hufanga’s goalline FF on the 1yard line, Dre got the FR. You stated twice that Dre caused this FF, please get the facts right in regards to the best safety in the league. Much appreciated.
    Nov 28, 2022 at 6:52 PM

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