The San Francisco 49ers defense has finally broken through, and to a level that most did not see coming. While the Niners struggled this decade, the defense showed flashes of brilliance and slowly grew under the radar. In 2011, the 49ers defense was record-setting against the run, phenomenal in the red zone and eye-opening in the takeaway column.
What's great about this bunch is that they are a young group -- average age in their mid-20's -- with room to grow and become something truly great as it pertains to NFL history. As someone who greatly respects the high-points in professional football, I took some time to compare this 49ers defense to some of the all-time great units -- and there are striking similarities.
Follow me after the jump as we draw parallels between the up-and-coming 2012 49ers defense and three historically great units.
Dallas Cowboys Doomsday Defense
It starts with the flex defense created by Tom Landry; a defense designed to bend but not break, meaning that offenses may drive the length of the field but they would not score. This is reflective of the 49ers' incredible red zone defense in 2011. The 49ers would occasionally allow long drives but teams could not cap them off with touchdowns -- field goals or worse would be the end result for opposing offenses in the red zone.
And even though Dallas ran a 4-3, the similarities between the 49ers and Cowboys are apparent.
The Cowboys boasted a relentless defensive front that at times featured players like Bob Lilly and Ed "Too Tall" Jones. Justin Smith is the marquee defensive lineman in the 49ers' defensive front, drawing strong play from those around him. The Cowboys also had this potent combination of grittiness and versatility from their linebackers.
The 49ers' linebackers are phenomenal athletes with excellent speed and awareness -- they are smart players. But collectively, they are possibly the fiercest group of hitters in the entire league. That combination of a high football IQ, speed and torque allows them to be dominant. Additionally, the flex defense depended on the downhill style of play from the inside backer, which the 49ers have in spades with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
And finally, it was a group that was reliant on an intelligent secondary that played to the scheme. San Francisco's defensive backfield does not have any freakish athletes, but they consistently play within their defensive assignments and project great awareness.
Super Bowls: 2
2000 Ravens Defense
The absolute speed and the intensity of this defense has been adopted by the 49ers. Like the 2000 Ravens, San Francisco plays incredible fast, swarming the football with brute force. The entire Baltimore unit took the field every Sunday playing with a chip on their shoulder, which is the exact mentality and approach of the Niners defense.
And whether it was the regular season or post-season, the Ravens were a squad that excelled at taking the football away. In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers were just short of an astounding 40 takeaways, registering 38 last season.
The defenses are almost mirror images of each other in terms of dominance, great tackling and being conditioned. Both units swarm and fly around the football, creating opportunities and even scoring on defense. It was a defense that took the field to try and win the game by themselves because they had an offense that lacked explosion and consistent productivity. The Ravens knew their offense was not going to put up a lot of points, so it was about taking a lead early and holding it.
And of course, there is the Ray Lewis-Patrick Willis parallel to be made.
Super Bowls: 1
The Steel Curtain of the 1970's
The first thing that strikes me in terms of similarities is the dependence on the defensive line. Like the Steelers depended on the play from their front four, San Francisco relies heavily on their guys in the trenches to not only generate pressure but control gaps.
The fact that the Steelers had L.C. Greenwood, Joe Greene, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes, the defensive line could put heat on the quarterback by themselves, and didn't need to send blitzes. Jack Ham, Andy Russell and Jack Lambert could hang back, spy and play pass defense. In 2011, San Francisco was not blitz-heavy, never really sending more than four at a time.
And with the Steelers' collective talent up front, someone would always be unblockable. In 2011, San Francisco had four players with 5 sacks or more, as many Niners took turns causing disruption in the backfield. I would not go as far as to say that the 49ers defensive line is anywhere near this Steelers group, but they perform well together and consistently play at a high level.
And for as much credit is given to the defensive front, there was star power at three levels of the Steelers' defensive infrastructure. It was a group that featured 8 pro bowl players, including their entire secondary. Pittsburgh had punishing hitters in the secondary that seemed to feed off of the tenacity the front seven played with, as if it were contagious.
This is what we saw from the Niners this past season. Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson became possibly the most feared safety tandem, with punishing hit after punishing hit. Carlos Rogers also proved to be a well-rounded cover corner who also has something to offer in run-support. Three levels of strong play is why this 49ers defense resembles the Steelers of old.
Super Bowls: 4
From a broad perspective, the 49ers defense of now features a lot of traits of historically great defensive units. Considering they have only just begun their reign of terror in the league, it's hard to to gauge just how good they may or may not be in the long run but expectations are certainly high. These three defenses will forever have a place in NFL history while San Francisco's is just establishing their dominance.
With the carry-over from last season, San Francisco's defense could be even better in 2012. Last year's rookie sensation, Aldon Smith, will become a starter in which the Niners might have the best starting linebacker unit for the next half-decade, at least. While Justin Smith is coming off an MVP-like year, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald will be entering their second years at their new starting positions on the defensive line.
And make no mistake about it, the 49ers defensive secondary has quickly become one of the league's best -- and surprisingly so, considering what a weakness it has been. The 49ers might have one of the deepest, most talented cornerback groups in the NFL with four starting-capable players in Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox. The unit doesn't have any holes and they play like there is no tomorrow; the future is definitely bright for this young 49ers defense.