49ers’ defense pushing for results
SANTA CLARA – For the past three seasons, the San Francisco 49ers defense has been all about potential. Now it’s about production and results.
The emerging unit that carried the team to an 8-8 record last season is trying to take it a step further this summer, and it appears the best is yet to come.
“Man, we’re at the starting line waiting for the gun,” linebacker Takeo Spikes said Thursday. “That’s the anxiousness we have right now. That’s the excitement we have about playing this game with each other. We really don’t see a limit to what we can do.”
The excitement has shown throughout training camp and two preseason games.
The San Francisco defense, with established veteran starters at every position and quality young depth behind them, has allowed just 214 yards per game. The 49ers rank fourth in the league in total defense and are second in passing defense.
Even fourth-year defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, never one for hyperbole, admits that he’s feeling pretty good about his unit heading into Saturday’s exhibition game against the cross-bay rival Oakland Raiders.
Since switching to a 3-4 system in 2005, the 49ers have been gradually building their defense to the point they now feel it’s ready to push the team back into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“I feel comfortable that these guys know exactly what I want now,” Manusky said. “They understand the system. Now we’re just getting into the details of the way offenses are going to attack and how we should attack them.”
San Francisco now has the defensive personnel to attack from all angles. Though coaches are keeping the game plan mostly vanilla during the preseason, the 49ers still have shown glimpses of the speed and aggression opponents can expect to face this season.
Four different San Francisco linebackers have preseason sacks, and that unit as a whole – led by All-Pro Patrick Willis – promises to be one of the NFL’s best this year.
The defensive tone was punctuated on the third play from scrimmage during last week’s 15-10 victory over Minnesota, when Willis blitzed up the middle, bowled over a would-be blocker and sacked quarterback Brett Favre for a 10-yard loss.
“We’ve really changed up our whole scheme,” Spikes said. “When I first got here, teams didn’t have to worry about having a blitz pickup until third down. Now you never know when it may be coming. We can go three straight downs of blitzes. We’ve got the guys and schemes to do it. (Opponents) are going to have to play it honest and be aware of who’s coming at all times. That’s the beauty of the 3-4 system.”
Lining up next to Willis at inside linebacker, Spikes has been an integral part of that system since joining the 49ers as a free agent in 2008. As the oldest member of the defense at age 33, the two-time Pro Bowler has seen a promising unit grow up around him.
After four consecutive years of finishing 24th or lower in the NFL in total defense, the 49ers have ranked 13th and 15th the past two seasons and are poised for a climb this year.
The talent is there to make it happen. Five defensive starters have been to the Pro Bowl at some point in their careers. Willis and defensive end Justin Smith both made it last year.
“Everybody dropped their egos at the door and we all have a better idea of what’s expected of us,” Spikes said. “Everybody’s playing together and everybody’s understanding. It’s to the point we know what to do, and we’ve learned now why we have to do it. We’ve had a little success, so now we know what’s at stake.”
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