All year long, the 49ers have hung their hat on playing smart offense, relentless special teams and physical defense.
For a franchise that has built its identity with a rich history prolific offenses, this year’s dominant defense is writing a new chapter for the 49ers organization.
In the middle of the deep postseason run has been defensive captain
In his final three years of college, Willis never won more than four games. In his previous four seasons with the 49ers, Willis and his team never finished with a record better than 8-8.
Through good times and bad, Willis has become the first player in franchise history to rack up five Pro Bowl invitations in five NFL seasons. Now he finally has a shot to go to the Super Bowl with a win over the Giants in the NFC Championship game on Sunday.
“When you think of this defense, you naturally think of Patrick Willis,” safety
Just four days away from the biggest game of his life, Willis couldn’t hold back his smile when asked about the magnitude of Sunday’s showdown at Candlestick.
“I can’t even put it in words,” Willis said. “I was just thinking about it last night talking to my mom about how close we are to being able to go to the Super Bowl. It’s something I’ve always envisioned since I was a kid. Just to play this game and to be this close now – it’s something that I don’t want to let slip away.”
But it would be a disservice to say the defense starts and ends with Willis.
Using a mix of savvy veterans, key free-agent additions and improved youngsters, the 49ers have put together one of the most feared defenses in the league. It was the top ranked unit against the run (77.2 yards allowed per game), led the league in turnover differential (plus-28) and ranked second in scoring defense (14.3) during the regular season.
In last week’s rousing 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints, the defense and special teams combined to force five turnovers.
“We feed off everybody,” cornerback
On gamedays, the mastermind behind it all sits in a glass booth high above the field. In his first season with the organization, it’s safe to say defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has left his stamp on the 49ers.
All year long, players have commended Fangio for his ability to prepare the defense, yet also give players freedom to use their instincts to make plays. On Thursday, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh offered up some more lofty praise for Fangio, who totes a quarter-century of NFL coaching experience.
“He’s one of the best defensive coordinators in the history of the NFL,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what I want his legacy to be.”
But like most of his players, Fangio is still in search of that elusive Super Bowl ring.
First things first, the 49ers will need to slow down Manning and a potent offensive attack. In the Week 10 meeting between these two teams,
But Big Blue will be looking like a different team when it steps on the field Sunday. Starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw was sidelined with an injury during the first contest, and though he sat out Wednesday’s practice with a foot issue, he’s expected to play this time around.
Despite his smaller stature, Bradshaw has been a major part of the Giants offense this year. In 12 regular season games, the shifty back amassed 926 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns.
“Bradshaw will hit it up in there and bounce outside,” Rogers said. “He’s quick, he’s fast. He’s the all-around back they use and they’ll bring him out on passes, too. He adds another dimension to them that we didn’t see in the first game.”
When Bradshaw is coupled with big, bruising Brandon Jacobs (571 rushing yards and seven touchdowns), the Giants boast one of the league’s top tailback tandems. But in the first matchup, the 49ers limited Jacobs to just 55 yards on 18 carries.
Once again, it will be crucial for the 49ers to keep up their physical style of play. As much as Whitner likes to move up in the box and help against the run, he’s expecting his front seven to take care of business on Sunday.
“It’s fun and everything,” Whitner said. “But our run support doesn’t need too much help. Those guys can stop the run with seven guys up there. They’ve been doing it all year.”