We've seen great defenses before; the league has seemingly had a representative from each decade. I have an affinity for the historically great units that have come and gone in this league. Given my age, the defense I remember best is the 2000 Ravens - unfortunately I was not around to see the 80's Bears or 70's Steelers, but I've done my homework.
What NFL fans everywhere witnessed on Sunday in Green Bay was, what I believe, the dawn of the next great unit.
This defensive group has talent, depth, intellect, speed, instincts and discipline. And boy oh boy, do they put some mustard on those hits. When coaches talk about being physical with an ‘F,' this is what they're talking about.
Football at its core is a game of hitting, and the San Francisco 49ers are in a league of their own when it comes to that. At each and every position, the Niners defenders are sound tacklers. They swarm, close fast and it's very rare to see an offensive player break the first tackle against them.
Right now, the 49ers defense is the closest thing to a historically dominant unit in this league.
What was really impressive about the 49ers defense on Sunday is that they basically controlled that game from beginning to end without Patrick Willis being a factor. Willis, arguably the team's best defensive player, was off the field often, having played only 67% the snaps. Meanwhile, second-year starter NaVorro Bowman played 82% of the defensive downs.
Jim Harbaugh said in a press conference on Monday that Willis had 12 plays in the dime when Bowman wasn't in. But No. 53 shouldered a lot more responsibility against the Packers, excelling with a team-leading 8 tackles and a game-breaking interception.
The relevance of this is, the depth, systematic approach and cohesiveness of this defensive unit. There are no holes.
Across the board, this group has a ton of talent and contractually speaking, you could argue that it's unfair. Aside from Bowman, the Niners have players like Tarell Brown, Aldon Smith, Donte Whitner, Chris Culliver, Isaac Sopoaga and Perrish Cox on relatively low paying contracts.
The 49ers have been able to do this because they've drafted well on that side of the football. In addition to that, Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke are great talent evaluators, having brought in a number of a number of players who have exceeded expectations.
This defense is not only complementary to the offense, but also complementary internally. The 49ers defensive line, linebackers and secondary have an interactive relationship in which they help one another succeed at their assignments.
Interestingly enough, the Niners defenders spent significant time learning the nuances of each other's positional duties this offseason. So on top of this astronomical level of overall talent, there is flow, purpose and understanding within this defense.
The comprehension of the system allows them to fly to the football, and use their God-given athletic ability to hustle to the football and run guys down.
Moreover, this group does three basic things extremely well: (1) pressure (2) cover and (3) tackle.
The 49ers can pressure with three or four of their best guys - who can also stop the run - which allows assignment flexibility for the remaining defenders. This is what made Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain such a prevailing defense.
On the defensive line, they had Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes. With that lineup, their Hall of Fame linebackers rarely had to blitz, but rather played a lot of coverage and allowed the front four to get after the QB and stop the run.
With Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, the Niners pressure the quarterback as good, if not better than any team in the league. This allows Willis and Co. to roam and make plays. Despite the difference of a 3-4 and 4-3, there are similarities between this 2012 Niners bunch and Pittsburgh's 70's defense.
On both rosters, the talent level was just superb.
The exclamation point that ties it all together is great coaching and toughness.
Vic Fangio is one of the great coaches this league has had the pleasure of associating itself with. He is a defensive whiz and knows how to game-plan and utilize what his players do best. Fangio's presence will give this 49ers unit consistency and ensure that they stay hungry.
And finally: toughness. This team has an aura or a swagger, if you will. They don't want offenses to gain an inch, much less a yard, so nothing against them comes easy. This group wants to push teams backwards and keep a big fat 0 on the scoreboard.
They are merciless, physical, physical, intense, fast and driven. When they play teams, they want them to know they got in a fistfight. It's a "you will remember me" kind of mentality when they deliver a blow.
And like Patrick Willis said, "I don't know who they think we are -- we're on a mission."