Donte Whitner doesn't have any passing yards or touchdown tosses, but he might as well be a quarterback. As he sits behind the rest of the 49ers defense and goes through his pre-snap reads, the sixth-year safety is playing a chess game with the signal-caller under center.
Sure, big hits and big interceptions are nice, but someone needs to supply the brains with the brawn.
"Dashon (Goldson) wants to be a headhunter and he wants the ball," Whitner said. "Carlos (Rogers) doesn't want to be a headhunter, he just wants to get the football. … I want to do a little bit of both, but I really want to help guys get lined up."
By now, Whitner knows how to read the body language of his fellow members of the secondary. So when Goldson is gearing up for a big hit, Whitner knows when to get out of the way. It's the kind of chemistry that builds as the season progresses.
With 13 weeks under their belts, the 49ers are getting more comfortable within coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme. So far, the results have been remarkable.
Currently, the 49ers lead the league in scoring defense (13.4 points allowed per game), rush defense (71.8 yards per game) and turnover differential (plus-18), while ranking in the top five in virtually every other defensive category.
Not that they care.
"I don't even know those rankings or any of that," linebacker Parys Haralson said. "I just know that we're winning games and that's all that matters."
If the 49ers (10-2) want to win on Sunday, they'll have to do it against an Arizona Cardinals offense that will have a new look. Quarterback Kevin Kolb will get his first taste of the NFC West rivalry with the 49ers after sitting out the Week 11 meeting with an injured foot.
The Cardinals struggled to get any offensive momentum in the 23-7 loss at Candlestick Park with John Skelton under center, but Kolb will surely bring a new element to the game.
"Right off the bat, his scrambling and athletic ability jumps off the tape at me," Fangio said. "He hurt Dallas last week scrambling several times. … Kolb's got a lot of ability and he's going to be a good quarterback for them for a long time."
Among the keys for Kolb will be to limit his team's turnovers. The 49ers preyed on Skelton and Cardinals last time, racking up a season-high five takeaways, including three interceptions.
"All good secondaries have guys that want to get that football and want to be physical," said Whitner, who picked off Skelton once and also had a fumble recovery.
One thing that hasn't changed about the Cardinals offense is No. 11, Larry Fitzgerald. Now in his eighth season, Fitzgerald remains in the elite class of NFL wide receivers. In the last contest with the 49ers, Fitzgerald notched 43 yards and a futile, fourth-quarter touchdown that slipped through Rogers' hands.
As Whitner would attest, the 49ers have done a stellar job of clamping down on the opposition's top receiver lately. They have only allowed one individual 100-yard receiver since Week 6: Washington running back Roy Helu, who hauled in 14 passes for 105 yards out of the backfield.
As good as that stretch has been for the pass defense, the rush defense is sporting an even more impressive streak. Not since Week 11 of 2009 have the 49ers allowed an individual 100-yard rusher. And they haven't given up a rushing touchdown all year, becoming the first time since 1970 to hold opposing rushing attacks out of the end zone through 12 games in a season.
Listening to Whitner, it's obvious the 49ers want to keep it that way.
"Why wouldn't (the Cardinals) want be the first to go for 100 yards in so many games? The first to score a rushing touchdown?" Whitner said. "Our mindset is: We don't want to allow those guys to do that, we're not going to allow those guys to do that.
"We want to do something that's pretty historic and not allow anybody to get into the end zone and we have four games to accomplish that."
Arizona's ground game is spearheaded by Beanie Wells, a physical third-year back out of Ohio State. Wells was bottled up for 33 yards on eight carries against the 49ers in Week 11, but has racked up 295 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the two games since. Wells even broke the Arizona single-game franchise record with a 228-yard effort against St. Louis two weeks ago.
The 49ers may have to do battle without defensive captain Joe Staley, who is trying to recover from the hamstring strain he suffered on Sunday. Larry Grant filled in for Willis as the every-down inside linebacker next to NaVorro Bowman and would likely claim the same role on Sunday.
Regardless of who's out on the field, the defense feels confident with Fangio at the controls.
"That's why we're able to attack offenses the way we do and able to take key players out of football games – his knowledge and him translating it to defensive players," Whitner said. "We really understand why we're doing certain things and that's why we're playing so well."