The 49ers defense has been so consistently dominant over the last few seasons that it’s become hard to find new ways to illustrate just how effective they have been as a unit. They have essentially checked every box you’d look for in an elite defense while ranking as a top five unit for the last four seasons and counting.
However, one area in particular they excelled in last season was their ability to pick up the offense when they were rushed on the field following a 49ers turnover. Great teams find a way to complement one another, and cover for mistakes that are made on the opposite side of the ball.
Nobody in the NFL did that better than the 49ers did in 2022. They only allowed 23 points off turnovers all season, which ranked first in the entire NFL. Well ahead of the second place team Pittsburgh Steelers, who came in at 36 points allowed off turnovers.
Turnover margin is almost always your best bet at figuring out how a game went down the path that it did. Far too often it is too difficult to overcome gifting your opponents extra chances with the football, even for an offense as gifted as the 49ers.
That was something they did not have to stress about last season, as they held opponents to just 1.35 points per possession following a turnover of their own. Rarely did an opponent land a decisive blow as a result of the 49ers coughing up the ball, which played a major factor in them pulling out a couple of pivotal victories.
A prominent example of this came in the NFC Divisional round against Dallas. With the 49ers leading a tight affair 9-6 at halftime, the Cowboys punted on the first possession to start the second half. Return man Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled deep inside 49ers territory and gave new life to a sputtering Dallas offense that had a fresh set of downs starting at the San Francisco 21-yard line.
In a game where both offenses were struggling mightily to put up points against the elite defenses they were facing, this had the potential to be the turning point in this contest. Despite plenty of time remaining on the clock, it would have been a gut punch to have the Cowboys suddenly up four just after their offense was sent back to their own sideline down three.
Those are the kinds of momentum swings that alter history come playoff time. Luckily, the 49ers never had to discover the ripple effects from such an outcome, as their defense gritted out three consecutive stops inside their own 10-yard line, instead forcing a Dallas field goal that tied the game at 9 rather than giving the away side the lead.
Momentum is so hard to quantify, but this is one of those moments where despite the Cowboys coming away with points, you could feel it swing back in favor of the 49ers.
In a situation where everything could have unraveled as a result of a singular mistake on special teams, the defense stood tall and willed this team into making a critical stop that arguably won them this game. As they did all season, and will look to continue to do in 2023.