For the past decade the Baltimore Ravens possessed the most elite defense in the NFL. Of the 186 games they've played from 2000 to 2011, the Ravens have put up the following numbers, making them the most consistently dominant defense in the league:
- 1st in least amount of rushing touchdowns (92) and passing touchdowns (200) given up. Which means, yes, they rank first for the decade in touchdowns scored against them.
- 1st in total points against (3168), giving them an incredible decade mark of roughly 17 points against per game.
- 1st in interceptions returned for touchdowns (30) and 3rd in fumbles returned (13). The Ravens have yielded not only the stingiest scoring defense of the decade, but combine these two numbers together and you get the most defensive touchdowns of the decade as well.
- 1st in games allowing over 150 yards rushing (13). 2nd in games allowing less than 100 yards rushing (122). The next closest team has 97.
- 1st in games not allowing a rushing touchdown (119).
- 1st in games with at least two takeaways (108) and with at least three takeaways (66).
- 1st in total takeaways (386).
- 1st in rushing yards per attempt (3.42) and 2nd in total rushing yards against. The Steelers have 400 less total yards given up, but they also have 400 less attempts against them - making the Ravens bid for the best rush defense undeniable.
Here's how this year's 49ers team stacks up in each of those categories:
- 1st in least amount of rushing touchdowns (0) and tied for 7th in passing touchdowns (14) given up. 1st in total touchdowns scored against.
- 1st in total points against (145), producing a mark of 14.5 points against per game.
- 3rd in interceptions returned for touchdowns (1) and 4th in fumbles returned (0). 4th in total defensive touchdowns.
- 1st in games allowing over 150 yards rushing (0). 1st in games allowing less than 100 yards rushing (9).
- 1st in games not allowing a rushing touchdown (a perfect 10 outta' 10). If the 49ers prevent a rushing touchdown today, they will hold the all-time record. Right now they are tied for first with two other teams (the 86' Jets and the 97' Niners).
- 1st in games with at least two takeaways (9) and with at least three takeaways (6).
- 1st in total takeaways (26).
- 1st in total rushing yards against and 4th in rushing yards per attempt (3.64).
For the Ravens, I believe the statistics I picked out here exemplify their greatness as a unit. They force teams to be one dimensional by shutting down the run, and then they take advantage with ball-hawks and big-hitters in the secondary (sound familiar?). The 49ers so far this year match up almost identically in every way.
The most exciting part of today's game, therefore, is not the Harbaugh feud, or whether Alex Smith is better than Flacco; but that we are about to witness a change of the guard in football's defensive power structure.
The Ravens are without doubt the best defense of the past 10 years, compiling stats that no other defense, on whole, can compare to. For the past couple years the 49ers' front seven has quietly been playing very stout football, but the Niners' secondary was victimized by big plays; and their defense as a unit was victimized by poor offense and lacklustre special teams coverage.
In 2011, however, the entire unit has come together. Our front seven (Helms Deep, as I prefer to call them; as in, "Helms Deep will never fall while men defend it!") has improved and we lead the league in various rushing statistics and are about to set an all time NFL record, as mentioned above. Our secondary, despite facing more pass plays as a result of our dominant rush defense, is giving up less big plays than usual and producing more turnovers and passes deflected than anyone else in the league. We lead the league in forced fumbles and I would like to see a statistic on "big hits" because I would not be surprised to see us up there as well.
Thanks to improved play by both offense and special teams - and a few personnel tweaks - the 49ers defense has at last been allowed to shine in ways it was never fully able to before. As this team comes together and improves our defense continues to look that much better. Of course, you'd have to extrapolate these statistics over the course of a decade to begin comparisons to Ray Lewis and the Ravens - but we are more interested in staking an altogether new claim for a new decade: the 49ers are thee elite defense in the NFL.
The team's play this year will go a long way in staking that claim, and of course the 49ers will need to keep it consistent for years to come. But how much more fitting could it be to face the Ravens in their first franchise Thanksgiving Day game, on a national stage where every family in America will be watching, and while we rock our best record in almost a decade?
The decade of dominance that Baltimore has put together correlates well with this franchise's decade of ineptitude; and there is no better way to begin the new decade of San Francisco's return to glory then by putting the NFL on notice: the 49ers defense is the best unit in the league, with the best front seven in the league, and the best linebacker in the league.
The proof starts today, by beating Baltimore for the first time with Patrick Willis, by setting an NFL record in rushing touchdowns against through 11 games, and by doing it on the road, on the East coast, during a shortened week, in front of the entire nation.