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Notebook: Defense Dominates Again

Posted Sep 17, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO – Before every game, Aldon Smith dons a white, cutoff T-shirt before putting on his shoulder pads. The faded tee bears the iconic image of Muhammad Ali – the greatest – victoriously standing over a fallen Sonny Liston.

It’s still too early to call the 49ers defense “the greatest” just yet, but the unit added to its case in Sunday night’s 27-19 home opener against the Detroit Lions.

It’s a good thing for the Lions that Jason Hanson is still around. The 21-year veteran kicker was pressed into duty early and often as the 49ers stonewalled the Lions repeatedly throughout the game. Hanson knocked through four field goals to account for his team’s initial 12 points, before Brandon Pettigrew scored a futile, fourth-quarter touchdown pass to bring the game to its final margin.

“It’s a blast,” Smith said after a disruptive evening. “Picking up from where we left off and getting wins.”

Look at any level of the 49ers defense on Sunday night and you’ll see contributors. Take your pick.

Up front, there was the constant crush from Justin Smith and company. The All-Pro consistently owned the line of scrimmage and drove his man into the backfield, single-handedly blowing up plays.

Then there were the linebackers – Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith – setting the edge and sending Matthew Stafford into a tizzy.

Not to mention the secondary, which contained one of the game’s premier receivers in Calvin Johnson and recorded its first interception of the year when Dashon Goldson picked off Stafford in the first quarter.

“We felt like we were in control, we just wish they didn’t get the touchdown to end the game,” Donte Whitner said. “We gave up a big play, but we’re going to go back and fix that. But it feels great to be 2-0.”

Not only are the 49ers 2-0, but they’ve earned wins against two fellow playoff teams from a year ago. Stafford entered the game on the cusp of history, needing another 350-yard effort to become the first NFL quarterback to do so in five straight games. He left Candlestick with pedestrian totals, completing 19-of-32 passes for 230 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Johnson was also held in check for most of the night, as he hauled in eight passes for 94 yards but was shut out of the end zone. Meanwhile, the Lions amassed just 82 rushing yards on the evening, meaning the 49ers haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 21 straight home games, the longest active streak in the NFL.

“They’re stacked on offense,” Justin Smith said. “5,000-yard quarterback, Megatron, couple good tight ends. That’s a heck of an offense, so we’re just glad with the outcome.”

Johnson also found himself on the wrong end of one of the game’s highlight plays, when Willis brought the lumber and laid him out across the middle. The big hit elicited a hearty dose of “ooohs” and “aaahs” from the raucous home crowd, while Johnson had a memorable reaction as well.

“I just remember him getting up and being, like, ‘Woah, OK, all right,’” Willis said. “So I know he felt it a little bit.”

Whereas many teams like to use their top cornerback to shadow Johnson throughout the contest, the 49ers contained “Megatron” with a collective effort. One play it would be Tarell Brown on the coverage, the next it was Chris Culliver, the next it was Bowman and so on.

“It’s a team effort,” Brown said. “We have a great secondary, a great defense, a great team in all. It’s a great team effort. Every guy can cover, every guy can play zone and that’s the good thing about our team. It’s not one guy who’s just out there manning him up.”

Following the game, Justin Smith commended defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for calling a scheme that challenged Detroit to run the ball. The steamrolling front seven didn’t budge throughout the night, as the longest run of the contest came when Stafford scrambled up the middle for an 11-yard gain.

The dominating performance conjured memories of last year’s historically good defense, but Justin Smith merely chuckled at the comparison, saying, “It’s Week 2. We’ll see where it stacks up.”

Still, Willis wasn’t short for words when describing the potential of the 49ers defense, especially against the run.

“I feel like we have one of the best, if not the best front seven in the game,” Willis said. “But we go out every week and we practice. We don’t just think it happens by chance. … We’re out here trying to prove it all over again and that’s our mindset is to go out each week and prove that we’re supposed to be what we are.”

Aldon All Day

Aldon Smith made his first NFL start last week in Green Bay, but it was awfully similar to the 18 appearances he made in the regular season and playoffs as a rookie in 2011. Playing against Rodgers and the high-octane Packers offense, Aldon Smith was called in to duty as a pass-rusher on virtually every snap.

Sunday night’s affair was a bit different.

Detroit’s play-calling allowed the 49ers to use more of their base personnel package, meaning Aldon Smith would be playing a true outside linebacker position, also responsible for stopping the run. The Lions ran to Aldon Smith’s side on the first play of the game but he shut down Kevin Smith for a 1-yard gain, one of his many stops on the evening.

“I stopped the run at Missouri,” Aldon Smith said of his college career. “I didn’t play as much as last year in those run situations, so I think people were kind of questioning that. But it was always something that I was able to do. So now it’s just time to put it on film and let everybody else see it.”

Aldon Smith was also up to his old ways in the pass-rushing department, as he was credited for one sack and almost had another. His would-be sack was particularly memorable, as the referees initially awarded the quarterback takedown to Ahmad Brooks. But after reviewing the play – ironically because of a Jim Schwartz challenge – the refs deemed Stafford's knee hit the ground earlier in the play. It appeared as if Aldon Smith was responsible for taking Stafford down but Ray McDonald was credited with the sack.

“They’re a good offense,” Aldon Smith said. “But we’re a good defense, so we knew that if we took care of our business then we would have a good chance of winning.”

Gore Keeps on Trucking

Frank Gore was, well, Frank Gore on Sunday night and the Lions had a tough time slowing him down. Ditto for the offensive line.

Gore carried the ball 17 times for 89 yards and a touchdown, leading the way for a rushing attack that currently ranks third in the NFL, averaging 167 yards per game. The touchdown also marked the 45th rushing score of Gore’s career, tying for third place on the all-time list with Ken Willard. Up next on the list are Roger Craig and Joe Perry, who each rushed for 50 touchdowns.

“They make it easy for me,” Gore said of his offensive line. “They play together as one, they’ve got a great o-line coach. G-Ro (offensive coordinator Greg Roman) puts us in great position. We just got to keep working.”

It would have been hard to miss the impact of the offensive line on Sunday night. The big fellows were routinely carrying their blocks down field and mauling the physical Detroit defensive front and the rest of the team followed suit. Tight ends Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker and wideouts like Michael Crabtree also got in the act and had several impressive blocks.

For his touchdown run, Gore punched the ball into the end zone from 1-yard out, following a host of blockers in the team’s “Giant” package.

“It was big,” Gore said of starting off the season with two wins. “We came out and started fast and finished the game.”

Candlestick Winds

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh had no reservations in using David Akers for a 63-yard attempt last week at Lambeau Field, but things were different on Sunday night. Mainly, the trademark winds of the historic stadium were in full effect.

The 49ers could have attempted 57 and 58-yard field goals during the game, but elected to punt instead. Akers understood situation and discussed it with a smile on his face in the locker room afterwards.

“It was not a kicker-friendly night tonight, that’s for sure,” the All-Pro said. “I hit one kickoff that went through the end zone and my next kickoff, the wind was right in my face and it went down around the goal line. It was a crazy night, just ask Jason Hanson.”

Still, Akers knocked through field goals from 36 and 48 yards out, making him 5-of-5 so far this year. Akers also made another field goal conversion but the Lions ran into him after the kick and the 49ers accepted the penalty, ultimately scoring on Gore’s touchdown.

“I took that hit pretty well I thought,” Akers said with a laugh. “It wasn’t that hard. We’ll take the first down.”

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