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Evaluating the 49ers' defense after 7 weeks: Which version will we see today?

Trying to pinpoint their best performance of the season

Kansas City Chiefs v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The 49ers’ defense earned high praise and hype during training camp. Charvarius Ward’s signing, Talanoa Hufanga’s play during camp, the 49ers returning core, and DeMeco Ryans returning to call plays again led to discussions about this defense being “all-time great.”

The 2019 defense speaks for itself. Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Dee Ford as a front four is downright scary. Fred Warner at the second level, with Richard Sherman (All-Pro in 2019), Jimmie Ward, and Jaquiski Tartt in the secondary, helped anchor a dominant unit.

2020 saw the 49ers’ entire roster decimated by injuries. Nick Bosa lost his season to MetLife Stadium’s turf. Players routinely moved in and out of the lineup due to various injuries. Kerry Hyder, Jr made the most of his opportunities by turning in a career year. One could argue the 2020 defense is the most impressive, considering the adversity presented.

In his first season as defensive coordinator, Ryans continued to grow each week. The players and Ryans became more and more comfortable as the season progressed. The most impressive aspect was how well Ryans adapted his game plan to opponents and personnel matchups.

The prime example is the Cincinnati matchup that featured possibly the best trio of wide receivers in the NFL. Devising a game plan to not only slow down an explosive offense while starting a rookie CB isn’t easy. Three hundred ninety-seven passing yards allowed doesn’t scream holding the Bengals’ passing attack down. That’s leaving out the game was five full quarters of football. It was the start of a masterful run that led to the team’s deep playoff run.

Attending nearly every training camp session this summer, I can say the defense was as great as advertised. Receivers struggled to separate from Ward and Emmanuel Moseley. Running lanes were clogged up for the running backs. Trey Lance had his hands full every day. What made the defense so impressive was the light workload and days off for Bosa and other impact players. The depth jumped right out at you.

Discussions raged on about where this defense ranked with the all-time 49ers defenses. Can this unit surpass the 2019 unit? Is it on par with the 2012 defense? Even without taking a snap, these were all fair questions. So let’s evaluate where the unit is going into Week 8.

Currently, the 49ers per game allow 17.9 first downs (2nd in the NFL), 294.9 total yards (3rd), 203.9 passing yards (10th), 91 rushing yards (2nd), and 19 PPG (9th).

These numbers alone, minus context, are impressive. Adding in context, these numbers are skewed due to the past two games against Atlanta and Kansas City. How skewed, you ask? The 49ers allowed 1,246 total yards in their first five games. Over the last two weeks, the defense has surrendered 818 total yards. Last week, the Chiefs amassed 417 passing yards. That’s double the amount of yards the Los Angeles Rams had in their first matchup. The 49ers surrendered 445 passing yards COMBINED through the first three weeks.

You cannot paint the full picture of this defense without the injuries to impact players such as Moseley, Bosa, Jimmie Ward, Charvarius Ward, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, and Azeez Al-Shaair.

Also, how much did the ineptitude of the offenses early in the year help the numbers of the unit? The Bears in a rain-soaked game was sure to lead to very little offense. Denver and the Rams are struggling mightily to find their way so far. Funny enough, the most impressive performance against any offense from the first five weeks might be against the Seattle Seahawks.

Some have questioned whether many people, including myself, have overrated this unit. Sure, the past two weeks haven’t been up to the incredible standard set by this unit early on in 2022. But, at the same time, this group is banged up.

With a much-needed bye week around the corner, this unit is about to become as close to 100 percent as possible. This defense is NOT overrated. This unit should have the most confidence of the three fielded by the 49ers. Jason Verrett is close to returning, Al-Shaair should return, and any contribution from Armstead would be welcomed, considering his foot injury.

In this league, the hottest and healthiest teams become the “scariest” teams in the playoffs. This defense will get healthier and return to the dominant group it was early in 2022. These past two weeks will be viewed as a bump in the road for this defense.

It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. I have confidence this defense will return to form sooner than later.