If there was ever any doubt over the San Francisco Forty-Niners’ identity this season, it has been squashed by their last three games. This is a hard nose football team.
Remember back in 2011 when the Niners burst onto the scene with solid offense, tough defense, and a terrific special teams? They relied on fundamental football at its finest, and they were the least flashy team in the league. They went 13-3 that year, their best end of the season record in Harbaugh’s first few years as head coach, and were a Kyle Williams mistake away from a Super Bowl birth.
Flash forward to the 2012 playoffs, when Colin Kaepernick ran all over the Green Bay Packers while redefining the limits of the spread option, and you have a completely different team. Defensively they were similar, but offensively the team was remarkably different. Changing their style enabled them to get within 5 yards of a Super Bowl victory, but it also changed the Niners’ culture. Instead of relying on grit and physical dominance, they relied more on flash and big plays. They still knocked opponents in the mouth, but there was a distinct difference in they way they played. Their passing game took over, and in turn that often meant less time on the field for the offense and more time on the field for the defense.
For a team that has its starting defense on the field for almost all the snaps, this means tired legs. Maybe not tired legs in the early and middle parts of the season, but tired legs when it matters most; the playoffs. A defense is always going to be gassed at the end of the year, especially when the season extends past 16 games. But the strain is that much worse when they are on the field for more plays than they normally would be. Granted the Niners only implemented Kaepernick as the starter in week nine, but the latter part of the season is the most the most physically taxing and is not ideal for an increase in the defense’s time on the field.
This is exemplified by the fact that they gave up almost 400 yards a game in three playoff games last year. In the regular season they allowed just under 300 yards yards a game. Obviously they weren’t playing playoff teams every week during the regular season, but a 100 yard difference is a big indication of their sagging play. This can be boiled down to one thing, the defensive line. They were unable to consistently create pressure and only accrued four sacks in their 3 games. The secondary is often thought of as the weak link of the defense, but ultimately it was the defensive line that let them down. Justin Smith’s injury not only hurt them, it exposed them. Their defensive line relies heavily on Smith and Ray McDonald to get the job done play in and play out, and the depth behind those two is unproven. As last postseason showed, the Niners D-line can be the teams greatest strength, but also their achilles heel.
Why have I been talking about the Niners 2012 postseason defense in 2013? Because the style of the play that they have gotten back to in the last few games is exactly what this defense needs. If they are going to outperform their last playoff performance they need some help from the Niners offense. Help is best exemplified by their 18 play, nine and a half minute drive against the Cardinals. A drive like that is a lot more productive than a deep bomb to Vernon Davis. It takes away from the opponents offense, and keeps the defense on the sidelines. While both types of drives are necessary, a clock eater is an instrumental part of team success. If the Niners continue to place an emphasis on the run, while striking deep with the pass, they will be much better prepared for a playoff run this year than they were last year.