Because the San Francisco 49ers heartbreakingly ended their season, it seems like a lot of what they achieved before that has been overlooked. The 2015 Denver Broncos defense is thought of as the best pass defense in recent history. Their DVOA was -28%. The 49ers were -26% last season, and that’s including the games Jaquiski Tartt missed in December. San Francisco got after the quarterback 28% of the time, which is well above average. With Dee Ford on the field, that number rose to 38%, which would have been far and away from the best number, and I haven’t found a team come close to that in the 2000s. You can go down the majority of important stats on defense, and the 49ers were either the top or in the top three.
That shouldn’t be news, as we watched the games. We saw the defensive line wreck havoc, the linebackers take away everything underneath, and the secondary prevent the big play. The Niners eliminated the mental mistakes, added athleticism, and transformed into an elite defense.
Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire ranked every defense in the NFL, and the 49ers came in second:
2. San Francisco 49ers
The air yards stat Farrar references are nuts. Teams didn’t have time to throw it deep. Any long-developing play was a death sentence. Kyle Shanahan will use play-action to allow his receivers time to get across the middle of the field or some dimension of the field to run free. If you try that on this defense, Fred Warner isn’t falling for your tricks. Warner will likely get far more attention this upcoming year, but the plays he took away in coverage last year was nothing short of outstanding.
Not sure how we got on the topic of the 49ers quarterback, but a No. 2 ranking is night and day from last year. It’s hard to imagine the 49ers not having a top-five defense in 2020 with the way they can get after the QB, makeup ground on defense, and limit explosive plays. Making up ground may be one of their most underrated traits. Team speed, especially in today’s NFL, makes a significant difference. San Francisco rallies to the ball like most teams, but where they separate themselves is they don’t just get to the ball with a few different players; this unit suffocates you. I may make a highlight reel of offenses trying to run to the outside last season. Spoiler: it doesn’t work.
What is the 49ers floor defensively this year? It’s safe to assume they’ll take a step back. That doesn’t mean they’ll be bad. It means that it’s tough to keep pace when you are historically good.