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49ers D: Strength in Numbers

Posted Sep 19, 2012

The feared San Francisco 49ers defensive unit ranks highly among NFL defensive categories through two weeks of action despite having faced two playoff teams from 2011.

The 49ers come in at No. 6 in rush defense rankings (63.5 yards per game) and No. 11 in total defense (310.0 yards per game).

The impressive rushing stats, however, could be altered this week facing Adrian Peterson (144 rushing yards and two touchdowns) and the Minnesota Vikings, who offer more of a balanced offensive attack compared to fellow NFC North foes Green Bay and Detroit.

“Watching them on tape, we expect them to be in a lot more normal situations,” said All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith, who doesn’t expect the 49ers to utilize nickel and dime personnel as often as the unit did in wins over the Packers and Lions.

In fact, the 49ers are preparing for a lot more rushing looks than what the previous two opponents presented.

“What you’re working on in practice, the looks you’re anticipating are a lot different than what we’ve been preparing for these last two weeks,” explained Smith, the team’s defensive co-captain known for occupying multiple blockers on just about every play. “I think it’s going to be more of a balanced game. They have a lot of multiple run looks so it’ll be a good challenge.”

Even with multiple running formations, the Vikings will be hard-pressed to find running room against a 49ers defense, whose longest runs surrendered this year were to quarterbacks (Matthew Stafford, 11 yards and Aaron Rodgers, eight yards).

The biggest reason for the lack of running room, besides effort, is togetherness.

You can’t find anybody on San Francisco’s defense giving up on a play, even if it seems like a ball carrier is bottled up.

“Every week you don’t depend on one guy to make a tackle,” explained Patrick Willis, the team’s other defensive co-captain. “It’s going to be an all-out, team defensive effort and that’s how we play. We don’t depend on one guy to make the plays; we all try to get to the ball.”

Furthermore, the swarm of gold helmets towards the opposition is always appreciated when the team reviews game film.

“If you don’t tackle you’re a pretty bad defense,” added Smith, who has 14 tackles in two games. “I think any defense is going to take pride in tackling and we’re no different.”

Willis relishes seeing his teammates finish off tackles.

“Any time you turn on the film and see all 11 guys getting after the ball trying to make the tackle, it looks good on our part and other teams see it as well,” said Willis who is second on the team with 19 tackles.

“They know if they break one tackle, there’s 10 more others coming. We take pride in that.”

Tackling aside, the 49ers believe there’s always room for improvement and Week 3 is no different.

With the team heading to Minnesota in search of its seventh road victory in nine outings under Jim Harbaugh, the team isn’t focused on the perceived hype forming around the country.

“There are 16 sprints,” Harbaugh pointed out. “We don’t subscribe to the marathon theory.”

The 49ers coach also didn’t sense his team letting down at any point of 2011, a year that included an eight-game winning streak beginning in Week 3.

“They are a joy to coach, because that’s their mindset; they love to compete,” Harbaugh said of his players who he often refers to as, “The Fellas.”

“They love to prepare. They believe in working. I don’t sense any let-up or let-down.”

So how can the 49ers continue improving when many in NFL circles are talking them up as serious Super Bowl contenders? Easy, the 49ers tune that talk out.

“The topic keeps coming up every week…” Harbaugh said. “We’re striving to get better every day.”

For now, the challenge of facing Peterson and the Vikings has everyone’s attention.

For instance, Smith singled out how impressed he’s been with wide receiver Percy Harvin’s game tape and quarterback Christian Ponder’s quick development in just his second NFL season.

“He plays older than what he is, he’s played pretty well and the biggest thing is that he’s an athlete,” Smith said of the Vikings quarterback, who has completed 75.8-percent of his passes and is in search of his third consecutive game with a 100.0 QB rating or better.

“We just have to be ready for everything they throw at us and get ready for a good game,” Smith said.

Willis agreed.

“We just have to play team defense at all times,” said the 49ers linebacker noting that each week is a new challenge.

Willis and fellow All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman will have their hands full with Peterson, a player who’s stunned many in the league with his quick recovering from a late-season ACL tear.

Asked if he was surprised to see Peterson back in Minnesota’s starting lineup this early, Willis simply replied, “Not at all.”

Both players were selected in the 2007 NFL Draft, Peterson at No. 7 and Willis at No. 11. The star running back has tremendous respect for his fellow perennial All-Pro draft class member, and even joked on a Wednesday conference call that both players should have been picked No. 1 and No. 2.

Willis appreciated the kind words, but is not taking Peterson’s kindness for weakness.

“We’re going to have to be ready for him,” Willis said. “He’s explosive. He runs the ball hard and he seems to find daylight. When he sees it, he finds it fast.”

Good thing Willis has 10 teammates right beside him on just about every tackle.

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