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Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Which defense reigns atop the NFC West?

By Doug Clawson and Marty Callinan, ESPN Stats & Information


Jay Drowns/Getty ImagesBoth the Seahawks and the 49ers have climbed to the top of the NFC West with impressive play on the defensive side of the ball. Which unit has the edge as we approach their matchup on Thursday night?
This is the latest installment of a weekly NFL discussion that takes a closer look at one of the week’s hot topics. Today’s discussion focuses on two teams facing off on Thursday--the Seahawks and the 49ers--and which has the better defense:

THE 49ERS HAVE A BETTER DEFENSE

The San Francisco 49ers have one of the best tackling units in the NFL. They rank second in the league in opponent yards after contact and yards after contact per play (0.80) over the last two seasons. They can flat out hit!

Even though the Seahawks’ rush defense has been stingier in terms of yards per rush this season (3.3 to 3.6), San Francisco’s rush defense ranks first in the NFL in total opponent rush yards (1,792), yards per rush (3.5), touchdowns (5), and yards after contact per rush (1.4) since the start of 2011.

Perhaps most impressive, the 49ers’ rush defense gets better with its back against the wall. San Francisco has allowed three rushing touchdowns on 30 goal-to-go rushes over that span, best in the league. The Seahawks have allowed nine such touchdowns since the start of last season.

Beyond being hard-hitting and run-stuffing, the 49ers have allowed a league-low 5.6 passing yards per attempt. Their pass defense is especially tough downfield: It has the lowest completion percentage against (23.5) and has not allowed a touchdown on throws more than 20 yards downfield this season.

And finally, the 49ers’ defense is better at turning teams over. It has forced 10 turnovers this season (one more than Seattle), and 48 over the last two seasons. That is eight more takeaways than Seattle over that span and good for second in the league overall.

--Doug Clawson

THE SEAHAWKS HAVE A BETTER DEFENSE

Although the 49ers have some of the best tacklers in the NFL, the Seattle Seahawks are not far off. They trail the 49ers by just 0.1 yards after contact allowed per rush this season.

The big advantage for Seattle in the ground game comes in their base 4-3 defense. Opponents have one more rush against the 4-3 of the Seahawks compared to the base 3-4 of the 49ers. However, the 49ers have allowed 92 more yards in their base defense while giving up four plays of 20 or more yards. The 4-3 of the Seahawks has allowed just one.

Impact plays in the passing game are where the Seahawks have another big advantage. They lead the 49ers in nearly every category this season, and some by a decent margin.

Focusing on just sacks, the Seahawks are taking down opposing quarterbacks once every 14.9 dropbacks while the 49ers need 23.9 dropbacks on average.

Only the Bears have more sacks than the Seahawks with four or fewer pass rushers. That leaves more defenders in coverage to create plays in the chart above.

One thing the defense of the Seahawks does better than just about anyone is get off the field. The Seahawks rank third in the NFL in three-and-out percentage. The 49ers rank 13th.

--Marty Callinan