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In 2018, the San Francisco 49ers were an injury-ravaged mess of a football team that won just four games and finished 13th in the NFL in total defense and 28th in scoring defense.
The 2019 49ers have already exceeded last year’s win total. After spanking the defending NFC champion Rams in Los Angeles on Sunday, the 5-0 49ers are the NFC’s lone remaining undefeated team and all by themselves in first place atop the NFC West.
It’s a remarkable turnaround—from tomato can to contender in a single year. It’s no fluke, either—the 49ers may well be the best team in the conference. Better than the Green Bay Packers. Better than the New Orleans Saints. And certainly better than the Rams.
The engine that drove this rapid rebound is the team’s defense. Simply put, it’s the best D in the NFC. Maybe the entire NFL.
And it was on full display Sunday against Los Angeles.
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Facing a Rams offense that not too long ago was considered one of the most potent in the National Football League, the 49ers allowed an early touchdown on a Robert Woods end-around.
It was the first rushing touchdown the 49ers have allowed this season—and the last touchdown the team allowed in the game.
From there, the 49ers absolutely dominated defensively. For the game, a Rams team that entered Week 6 averaging 413.6 yards per game managed just 157 total yards. Quarterback Jared Goff was limited to 78 yards on 13-of-24 passing and was sacked four times. The Rams were a combined 0-of-13 on third- and fourth-down conversions.
It was as complete a defensive beatdown as you’ll see in the NFL and an outing that had defensive coordinator Robert Saleh just a little amped up.
It’s also not the first time we’ve seen this defense demolish an opponent. As a matter of fact, it’s not the first time we’ve seen the 49ers drop a piano on a hapless opponent in the past week.
Back in the long-ago times of Monday night, the 49ers blasted the Cleveland Browns 31-3. In that game, the Niners held the Browns to 180 total yards. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was 8-of-22 for 100 yards with two picks. He was sacked four times.
The foundation of this fearsome defense is a defensive line that is absolutely stacked—a line that boasts five first-round draft picks.
Defensive end Arik Armstead (pick No. 17, 2015) had half a sack against the Rams and recovered a fumble that set up a 49ers touchdown. DeForest Buckner (pick No. 7, 2016), who has become one of the best 3-technique tackles in the game, had four total tackles and a tackle for loss. Edge-rusher Dee Ford (pick No. 23, 2014), who joined the team in the offseason via a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, notched 1.5 sacks against Los Angeles. Solomon Thomas (pick No. 3, 2017) added a sack of his own.
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Last year’s 4-12 nightmare also landed the 49ers the second overall pick in this year’s draft—a pick they used on Ohio State edge-rusher Nick Bosa. Bosa was quiet against the Rams, but last week against Cleveland, he piled up four solos and two sacks. He may well be the best player of the lot.
It’s not just that San Francisco’s line is loaded with talent. The depth up front allows Saleh to rotate players and keep his linemen fresh. Saleh’s also afforded the luxury of not needing to blitz; the 49ers can generate plenty of pressure just sending four. That means seven guys in coverage (at least) all game long.
That line’s the centerpiece of the 49ers defense, but it’s hardly the only weapon at Saleh’s disposal. Linebacker Fred Warner led the Niners with 124 tackles as a rookie and is again pacing the team in that regard. Free-agent signee Kwon Alexander led the NFL with 108 solo tackles in 2016. Cornerback Richard Sherman is a three-time first-team All-Pro.
It’s a unit with proven, high-end talent at all three levels—and it shows. By virtue of the 48 net passing yards the 49ers surrendered to the Rams, the team now boasts the stingiest pass defense in the game, allowing fewer than 151 yards per game. The Niners rank inside the top 10 in run defense and lead the NFC in both total defense and scoring defense.
Now, that defense isn’t the sole reason the 49ers have peeled off five wins in a row to open the 2019 campaign. Heading into Sunday’s action, San Francisco boasted the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack as well, averaging a jaw-dropping 200 yards a game on the ground. The team didn’t have that kind of success running the ball against Los Angeles, but much more often than not, the 49ers have been able to pound away on the ground with impunity this season.
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When you combine that ground game and that punishing defense, you get a team that completely dictates the tempo and tenor of games. The defense has done a fantastic job of getting teams off the field, ranking inside the top 10 in third down conversion rate against. The offense then hits the field and grinds away, wearing down opposing defenses. Add them together and you get a team that led the NFC in time of possession entering Week 6 and held the ball for almost 39 minutes against the Rams.
Sure, there are other good defenses in the NFC. The Chicago Bears are widely regarded as the gold standard in the conference. But five games into the season, the Niners are allowing over 70 fewer yards per game than Chicago is this year and over 60 fewer yards per game than the Bears did in 2018 when they led the NFC in that category.
That Bears team went 12-4 and won the division. As Bosa told Jeff Darlington of ESPN, he thinks the San Francisco D can take the 2019 49ers even further:
The 49ers are one of the most storied franchises in NFL history, but in recent years, there hasn’t been much to cheer about. Since losing the NFC Championship Game to the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, the Niners haven’t posted a winning season or made the postseason.
Both of those dry spells appear to be about to end—and then some. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have built a team that’s more than just a playoff contender. This is a team that’s a legitimate contender to represent the NFC in Miami in Super Bowl LIV.
The 2019 San Francisco 49ers are the real deal.
And their defense is the biggest reason why.