CINCINNATI – It seems like strong defensive efforts are hardly appreciated in today's National Football League. But that's exactly what you can take away from the 49ers first road win of 2011, a 13-8 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The win was due in large part to a dominant performance by the 49ers defense, but come to find out, it was team-wide relentlessness that truly allowed the 49ers to improve to 2-1 on the year.
Sunday's game won't lead highlight shows around the country, but the 49ers won't fret. They took inspiration from their defense's performance and made sure to finish strong on Sunday with 10 points in the fourth quarter.
In fact, relentlessness was a theme the 49ers hit on all week prior to traveling to Ohio.
"Coach talked about being relentless in our meeting last night," said defensive captain Joe Staley, who recorded eight tackles and a pass breakup. "I think that's what came true today and it felt good."
Harbaugh also stressed to his players the importance of packing properly for their 10-day road trip, which will have the team practice at Youngstown State before taking on the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday.
"It was one of those games we knew coming in we'd have to play 60 minutes," Willis continued. "Coach talked about it all week. He said, 'We have to pack our defense. We have to pack it when we go on the road.' And it played out to be true."
The 49ers packed their defense all right, holding the Bengals to 228 yards of total offense while maintaining their streak of not allowing a 100-yard individual rusher, which now stands at 25 straight games. The defense also harassed Cincinnati's rookie quarterback Andy Dalton for much of the game.
Prior to Sunday, Dalton had thrown for more than 300 yards in his first two games and had exceeded a 100.0 quarterback rating in each contest. That wasn't the case against the 49ers, which intercepted Dalton twice and held the second-round pick to 157 passing yards and a 40.8 quarterback rating.
But while the persistent play of the defense was evident throughout the game, the 49ers offense had to demonstrate the same type of play in the fourth quarter in order to take game over.
Trailing by a field goal, the 49ers put together the game's only touchdown drive, a 10-play possession that saw Kendall Hunter score his first career rushing touchdown.
Quarterback Alex Smith described his teammates as frustrated by their play through three quarters, but also said they were hungry before that specific drive.
"(They) wanted the ball back," said Smith, who completed 11 of 13 passes in the second half. "A lot of the time, I couldn't say that.
"It's kind of, 'Here we go again.' This was a lot different. Guys were fired up and wanted the ball back. That was a good feeling."
Seeing the 49ers offense respond was a good feeling for the defense, too.
"We have to play together. And we're always going to have each other's back," Willis said. "Today, that's what it took. It took us keeping the game close and they came through at the end which was awesome."
Considering how the 49ers let a home victory slip away last week against Dallas, finishing the game out strong was a positive development.
"I feel like that's what we've been lacking, finishing games like last week," Willis added. "That was a game we should have finished and today we came out and fought for a win."
Compared to last year's extended road trip in London, the 49ers feel much better about staying away from home having a victory to start the trek.
"You don't want to spend the week with an 'L' hanging over your heads," said linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who had a game high 11 tackles. "We got the 'W,' so we'll bond with the team and get ready for Philly."