It almost feels like an understatement at this point to say that the Niners' defense has been truly dominant through the first five weeks of the season. Their ability to stop the run at a 3.0 yards per carry a clip is in a class all by itself, they surrendered the fewest passing touchdowns in the league, and they lead the world in sacks at 21.
That last stat and the accompanying pressure numbers on opposing QBs, fueled by the extraordinary D-line, represent the engine that makes the whole thing go. Since taking over in San Francisco, Kyle Shanahan has stressed the importance of a D-line that can create havoc.
Now that they have one brimming with talent at every position, three waves deep, and coaches ready to deploy them like a swarming pack of banshees, it has led to success. A lot of success.
Seeing the suffocating nature of the pass rush translated into hard numbers, I began to wonder… Could history be in play?
First, I dug into the all-time number, which, if you’re curious, is very, very, very impressive. Look, the ‘80s Bears' defenses are the stuff of legend for a reason. For reference, the NFC Champion 2019 San Francisco 49ers, featuring rookie Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead, compiled 48 sacks on the season, which tied them for 5th overall that year. The Steelers came in first at 54.
Meanwhile, the ‘84 Bears notched 72(!) sacks! SEVENTYTWO! SEVENTY! TWO!
Seriously, they got after the quarterback. It’s even more impressive as you begin to look at the week-to-week output. The all-time single-game record is 14 sacks, set by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1952, which will probably never be broken. The list continues with seven teams tied at 12 sacks, then a whole mess of teams tied at 11 sacks, most of which happened in the ‘60s. Only three teams in the 21st century have matched either of those numbers.
Long story short, it’s tough to bring down the quarterback that much. Well, don’t you know, the ‘84 Chicago Bears put up 12 and 11 sacks in a game in the same season. But, then, the Monsters of the Midway followed up their 11-sack bonanza one week later by barely missing out on a third double-digit performance and sacked the quarterback nine times.
So, again, to put it simply, that defense did not mess around. As instilled by Buddy Ryan, their entire ethos was to hit the quarterback. He once wrote, “A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back,” and that’s exactly where a lot of quarterbacks found themselves. Richard Dent tallied 17.5 sacks, Dan Hampton recorded 11.5, and Steve McMichael got to 10.
However, no matter how many sacks the ‘84 Bears could compile, they still met their end in the playoffs to the San Francisco 49ers, and I don’t think it’s impossible their record could get broken by the very same team.
First of all, as stated above, the Niners have 21 sacks in five games, which equates to 4.2 sacks a game thus far. Doing the most simple math ever shows that 4.2 sacks multiplied by 12 remaining matchups on the schedule result in 50.4 sacks. Add that to the 21 already on the board, and you get… 71.4, which is preeeetty close to 72.
Obviously, the question becomes can the Niners maintain their pace and, more importantly, find one more sack to break the record officially?
Well, let’s start by looking at the games they’ve already played. The results per game are listed below from most sacks to least:
Right off the jump, it’s easy to see how the Niners beat up on a couple of teams for more than half of their season total. Ask those ‘84 Bears; sacks come in bunches. You can also see that given the absolute shellacking Justin Fields took on Thursday Night Football, it’s clear those monsoon-like conditions really took their toll on both sides of the ball.
As you look forward, the team will face Atlanta, who’s allowed a 34% pressure rate, this Sunday. Mariota tends to hold the ball, which creates more pressure, which should lead to sacks. Then in three weeks, this Niners team gets to see the Rams and their flailing line again. Might they be able to recreate the best performance of their season? They’ll also get two more chances at teams in the top ten for sacks allowed when the Commanders and Saints come to Levi’s.
Unfortunately, the flip side is that they’ll be facing four teams in the bottom ten of sacks allowed for a total of five games: the Chargers, Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Cardinals twice. No coincidence that these are either the best teams left on the schedule, or they feature an athletic quarterback able to evade pressure, or both.
This obviously doesn’t mean the record’s completely out of reach, and if the Niners have any chance of beating these teams, pressuring the quarterback and converting that pressure into sacks will be mandatory.
Of course, health will have a huge impact on the continued ability of the Niners to keep their near-record-breaking pace. The absence of Nick Bosa, even for just a week while he nurses a sore groin, might be enough to set back the chances of scratching 70. However, as the year goes on, the Niners should get healthier, allowing for the returns of Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, and Jordan Willis.
Ultimately, one thing is clear. The Niners' defense has reached new heights under the coaching of DeMeco Ryans, and the talent level on this side of the ball has never been higher in the Shanahan era. They may not break the record, but if they hope to compete for a Super Bowl, they’ll want to get as close as they can.