The San Francisco 49ers have one of the best defensive units in the NFL. At all three levels of their infrastructure, they have been elite.
No matter who is starting behind center, the 49ers are Super Bowl contenders because of their elite defense.
In Sunday's Week 12 match at New Orleans, the Niners defense reminded us, sacking Drew Brees 5 times and picking him off twice for as many touchdowns. The 49ers D held the Saints to 21 points at their own house on their way to a huge win.
And their best offensive weapon, Jimmy Graham, was inept - limited to only four catches for only 33 yards and no scores.
San Francisco's defense is just so overwhelmingly dominant at times, that it's actually gaining respect in the historic sense. From the personnel to the scheme to the coaches, the 49ers have all the elements for a championship defense.
This is a very imposing group.
San Francisco's defensive line starts with Justin Smith, the veteran behemoth. As the iconic figure for this defensive line, second-year starters Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald work hard to emulate Smith.
In the team's 3-4 base scheme, it's evident that the defensive line is a group that loves to initiate contact. They are extremely physical down to down, wearing down their opponents throughout the course of a game.
And every so often, they will showcase some superhuman burst, where one of them chews up at least two offensive linemen on their way to the ball carrier. And these guys are as blue-collar as this defense gets - they have a hungry style of play and they want to knock offenses backwards.
They are incredibly disciplined, too. When it comes to clogging lanes and creating congestion and general disruption, no unit is better than San Francisco's.
Moreover, when San Francisco is in their nickel and dime packages, they generate a reputable pass rush with Smith, Smith, McDonald and Brooks. This is also a potent combination of players forming a defensive line.
The Linebacker Corps
From left to right, the 49ers have a Pro Bowl/All-Pro caliber lineup.
Captained by team leader Patrick Willis, it's hard to argue San Francisco's linebacker unit isn't the best in the NFL.
All four starters are high-caliber players with great potential. The players work well together, they fit the scheme and they each bring something unique to the game.
Aldon Smith is a defensive MVP candidate. The first-year starter and pass-rush specialist brings incredible range to his position. Smith's physical gifts allow him to be a dominant football player, putting him on a fast track to defensive stardom.
He is young and still developing, but has already earned the game-changer label. Smith is currently holding a league-leading 16.5 sacks in 2012, breaking legendary records in the process.
Ahmad Brooks is a top-tier player and dual threat linebacker. No. 55 is an exceptional run-stuffer and pass-rusher, playing very good football in his two years as a starter. Brooks is super aggressive and seems to grow stronger as the game goes on.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are the league's best smash mouth linebacker tandem. They are highly instinctual players with great speed and power. They deliver such crushing blows and are so fast to the football, it's hard to get anything going against them.
As far as linebackers go, the 49ers have the best group in the league, bar none.
The secondary in San Francisco runs just as efficiently as their defensive front. There is a fully functional relationship between the Niners' d-backs and the members of the front seven.
And what's great about the 49ers defense is that the hard-hitting doesn't stop up front. In fact, the 49ers hardest hitter might be in their secondary. The team's free safety, Dashon Goldson, has been a physical presence in the Niners' defensive backfield.
He's been having another solid season for the team, showing his range and hard-hitting ability. Goldson has been a defensive playmaker, attacking the ball in the air and jarring it loose with big hits.
Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have also been having good years, but Chris Culliver has really emerged to strengthen the unit as a whole. The depth and versatility he provides in only his second year has been clutch in this pass-friendly NFL.
San Francisco's secondary is built of a lot smart players that play well within a system. But as a group, their mentality is to go out and play with the biggest chip on their shoulder. They are fast, physical and extremely aggressive tacklers.
Whether it's in coverage or run support, the Niners are among the leagues best.
While most of the chatter regarding the 49ers has been on the offensive side of the ball, it's San Francisco's amazing defense that should really be hogging the headlines. The Niners have it all on defense and have proven they can take down the juggernaut offenses in the NFL.
This year, the 49ers were scheduled to play the top three offenses from 2011 in the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, and all on the road. San Francisco's defense is 2 for 2 so far, toppling the Packers and Saints.
They've proven that when they show up, they have the best defense in the NFL. They look ready to win a championship.