49ers fans looked at San Francisco's 2012 regular season schedule with cringing faces and disbelief. It was almost like the schedule-maker was saying to the Niners defense, "You say you're the best, prove it." This coming season San Francisco will see the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, New York Giants and New Orleans Saints, with their extremely efficient passing offenses.
And in between those little match-ups are games against an improved Chicago Bears offense that's added Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Michael Bush, as well as a Week 2 rematch against Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions. Oh, and not to mention seeing Arizona's new Larry Fitzgerald-Michael Floyd tandem twice.
San Francisco's defense -- especially their pass defense -- will be tested in 2012. But as they say, 'to be the best, you have to beat the best.'
Before I begin, I'd like to make it known that I am one of those followers who believes the 49ers defense will take a step forward from last year. This is hard to imagine, I know, but this squad is destined to be the next great defense in NFL history. This is a defense that is above average to elite at all eleven starting spots; a group that featured four Pro Bowlers in 2011 (J. Smith, P. Willis, D. Goldson and C. Rogers), with another four as NFC alternates (N. Bowman, A. Brooks, R. McDonald and D. Whitner.
Almost their entire starting defense was made up of Pro Bowl-level talent.
And I think most of us would agree Aldon Smith was robbed of a trip to Hawaii. Also, the 49ers could have three defenders campaigning for Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, between Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
But briefly looking at the highlights on the 2012 schedule:
Week 1 @ Green Bay
Week 2 vs. Detroit
Week 6 vs. New York (N)
Week 11 vs. Chicago
Week 12 @ New Orleans
Week 15 @ New England
The eye-openers on the 16-game regular season schedule narrows down to this; not considering the challenges presented by NFC West opponents as well. San Francisco is going to be dealing with a number of NFL superstars who have consistently been great in the passing game. It's fair to say that there are three, maybe four Hall of Fame quarterbacks on this pallet of games.
It's going to be a record-setting defense versus record-setting offenses and quarterbacks in 2012. Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are the three best in the league, and the 49ers will be seeing them all on the road. Eli Manning has also made a case for how elite he really is, coming off his second Super Bowl victory. Calvin Johnson is also a one-man passing offense, now as the league's highest paid playmaker.
But number one: the 49ers will remove any attempt at a running game that any of these teams try and present. The majority of these quarterbacks (likely 3 of 5) are going to throw 50+ times. Not only can the 49ers defense force a team to be one-dimensional, but once they have, that's when they step on the opposing team's throat.
This was a record-setting run defense that also had the ability to rush three or four, dropping seven or eight, and still generate pressure. Justin Smith plays an intricate role in allowing San Francisco to do this. Reviewing the film of the NFC Divisional Playoff game versus New Orleans this past season, that was a large part of the Niners' game plan. And as talented as the New Orleans offense was, San Francisco's defense simply outmatched them in natural ability and fundamentals. All of Brees' attempts were futile, and just not enough -- the 49ers' defense won significantly more downs than the Saint's offense.
And let's not even get started on the cornerback depth and overall performance of the secondary, because it was stellar. The Niners have a cornerback group that is finally deep; they are versatile enough to mix-and-match with receivers and take away options across the board. And the safeties have established themselves as the hardest hitting ball hawks in the league, so receivers are cautious.
Something else the 49ers have done with their defense, whether it was intentional or not, was to become strong and have leadership at every level of the defensive infrastructure. Justin Smith leads the defensive line; Patrick Willis the linebackers; Carlos Rogers the cornerbacks and Donte Whitner is the veteran leader of the safeties. I think this is something fairly new that goes overlooked, but it's a large part of the units success. The Niners have enough individual difference-makers to limit and outright beat the league's powerhouse offenses.
And this is a team that's battle-tested; that's come up from nothing and now has something incredibly special. Having emerged from nearly the bottom after so long, the 49ers play with a chip on their shoulder and don't take a single thing for granted. I think this mentality has contributed to their reign as road warriors in the 2011 season; they traveled very well. They had this mentality to come in an take what was theirs by giving full effort and winning one down at a time.
With the Packers, Saints and Patriots all being away games, it's good that the 49ers don't wilt on the road. This is going to be classic blue collar mentality versus white collar sense of entitlement and the Niners will come out the victor. With all due respect to those franchises -- because they all pass the ball extremely well -- but they don't want it like the 49ers do.
It's because the Packers, Saints and Patriots have all been there, they've all won Super Bowls, so that element of urgency is no longer available to them. And while they're all very competitive, you cannot supplement having never touched a Lombardi Trophy as that drive you need to get the job done. Arguably the 49ers' best defender, Justin Smith, has never been to a Super Bowl and is getting up there in age; Carlos Rogers as well.
I believe the collective will of the men on the 49ers defense is beyond a conceivable capacity. Together, I don't think there is anything they couldn't fight through and accomplish. And now they have the offense to complement them, hopefully. The 49ers defenders are probably approaching this year like they have something to prove, and will capitalize on the opportunity with the schedule that's been presented to them.
The 49ers know quite well what exactly they'll be up against in 2012, and they'll likely be going extra hard after the likes of Brady and Rodgers. I'm sure Manning is also in for some punishment after the final results of the 2011 NFC Championship. The 49ers defense is amazing regularly, but up against the league's best, they will be on high alert and in full-fledged attack mode.
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