Commentary

Dominant D makes 49ers dangerous

It's a QB-driven league, but San Francisco's blueprint has worked in postseasons past

Originally Published: December 23, 2011
By Adam Schefter | ESPN.com

In a quarterback-driven league, the San Francisco 49ers' defense is making its mark.

The 49ers have yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season. They cannot be run on and seldom can be scored on. Witness the three points Pittsburgh scored against San Francisco on Monday night.

Just as New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is on the cusp of history -- he needs 304 passing yards Monday night against Atlanta to pass Dan Marino's NFL's single-season passing record -- so is the 49ers' defense.

The 1934 Detroit Lions, 1944 New York Giants, 1968 Dallas Cowboys and 1971 Minnesota Vikings each allowed an NFL-record two rushing touchdowns, but none of those defenses did it during a 16-game season.

San Francisco is two games from history and two games from the postseason, where it will be more dangerous than most people realize. Many believe that, with Alex Smith at quarterback, the 49ers' lack of offensive explosiveness will inhibit them in the postseason. Yet this is just the type of team that has succeeded in postseasons past.

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV with a dominant defense and Trent Dilfer at quarterback. The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII with another distinguished defense and Brad Johnson at quarterback.

These 49ers already have stymied explosive attacks in Philadelphia and Detroit, and are capable of doing the same to New Orleans or Green Bay. The precedent is there, and so is the talent on San Francisco's defense.

It is that good with Smiths alone. Defensive end Justin Smith personifies the effort and intensity that these 49ers constantly give. Rookie linebacker Aldon Smith has 13 sacks and needs two more to break Jevon Kearse's single-season rookie sack record.

And 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are as good as any linebacking tandem in the league, including any in Baltimore or Pittsburgh.

As good as the Packers and Saints are, San Francisco is just as scary, though in an entirely different way. During a season in which so much of the football conversation has been about Aaron Rodgers, Brees, Tom Brady and Tim Tebow, San Francisco's defense is capable of sneaking up on anyone not expecting it.

The 49ers already have upset the Eagles, Lions and Steelers. Be warned. They also are tough enough to upstage the faces of football and this entire season.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

[+] EnlargeJason Babin
Eric Hartline/US PresswireThe Eagles' best offseason addition? That's easy -- DE Jason Babin (18 sacks).

1. Great defenders: Headlines trumpeted almost each of the Philadelphia Eagles' training camp acquisitions. They were saluted for signing former Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, lauded for landing former Packers defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, praised for pulling in running back Ronnie Brown and complimented for acquiring backup quarterback Vince Young.

Now it seems almost funny. The training camp acquisition who might have gotten the least attention has made the biggest difference. No new Eagle this season has made the type of difference that former Titans defensive end Jason Babin has. He leads the NFL with 18 sacks. He is the first Eagle to have three-plus sacks in consecutive games. And he has become the third Eagle with 18 sacks in a season, joining Reggie White and Clyde Simmons.

Combined with the 12.5 sacks he had last season, Babin has evolved into one of the game's most dominant defensive players. The stats support it. In his first 66 NFL games, Babin had 17.5 sacks; in his past 30 games, he has had 30.5 sacks. As the Eagles have made a last-season push that has positioned them to still possibly advance to the postseason -- if the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles each finish 8-8, Philadelphia will win the NFC East -- Babin has elevated his game and distinguished himself from all of his team's more celebrated acquisitions.

2. Bears better off avoiding Cowboys: Former Dallas Cowboys tight end Mike Ditka worked out beyond well in Chicago. But next time the Chicago Bears opt to sign so many players from one team, they might want to avoid Dallas. Each of the former Cowboys signed by the Bears has played a significant role in sinking Chicago's once-hopeful season. In Week 13, former Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams dropped a fourth-quarter, potential game-tying touchdown pass during Chicago's 10-3 loss to the Chiefs. The next week, former Cowboys running back Marion Barber inexplicably stepped out of bounds, giving Denver the extra time it needed to tie a game before his overtime fumble helped the Broncos win it.

But the capper came in Week 15, when former Cowboys wide receiver Sam Hurd was charged with going Tony Montana and dealing massive amounts of cocaine and marijuana to complement his nearly $2 million-a-year NFL job.

So maybe Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knew what he was doing when he began clearing his roster of some of the riffraff that helped drag it down in recent seasons. And maybe the Bears would be better served with free agents from places other than Dallas.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
William Perlman/US PresswireWill the New York tabloids be lauding or ripping Eli Manning this weekend? Stay tuned.

3. Good back-page fodder: With the constant talk of playoff scenarios and the New York Jets squaring off versus the Giants on Saturday, New York's tabloids already have clinched a field day for Christmas. One of New York's teams, the Jets or Giants, is going to suffer a costly loss Saturday that is assured of being roundly criticized Sunday.

Either the tabloids will be all over a Jets team that will have lost its second straight game when a playoff spot was on the line, or they're going to pounce on a Giants team that will have lost its sixth game in its past seven. Saturday's game can go either way, but the tabloids will be big winners.

4. Foul play: The 1998 Kansas City Chiefs, the most penalized team in NFL history, suffered their most inglorious moment in a Monday night meltdown against Denver that had to be seen to be believed.

Denver's Hall of Fame tight end, Shannon Sharpe, kept reciting numbers at the line of scrimmage -- three before first down, three before second down, four before third down -- that turned out to be the telephone number of the girlfriend of Kansas City's Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas. With each digit that Sharpe called out, Thomas became more enraged, to the point that he drew two personal foul penalties for pulling and twisting Sharpe's face mask.

Thomas' teammates, Wayne Simmons and Chester McGlockton, drew the other three personal fouls on Denver's last drive, giving Kansas City 13 penalties for 170 yards on the night in a season in which the Chiefs set NFL single-season records for most penalties (158) and most penalty yards (1,304). As undisciplined as those Chiefs were, this season's Raiders might be even worse. They lead the league in penalties and penalty yards and are on pace to shatter the marks that the Chiefs set in 1998.

This season's Raiders have committed 140 penalties, putting them on pace for 160, two more than the record-holding Chiefs. This season's Raiders have lost 1,202 penalty yards and are on pace to lose 1,374, 70 more than the record-holding Chiefs. Oakland has been known to play this way in the past; late owner Al Davis embraced it as much as he tried to correct it. But the Raiders never have been as careless and reckless as they have been this season.

No one has called out any telephone numbers of anyone's girlfriend, but Oakland has had its own meltdowns against Denver, drawing 15 penalties in each of the two games it played against the Broncos in September and November. Something about Denver brings out the darkest side of its division rivals.

The Raiders still have time to regain their composure and the division lead, but not much. Before closing the season at home against San Diego, Oakland plays at Kansas City on Saturday. It will look to thwart the penalty pace that has helped derail the season in the stadium where the Chiefs set the single-season penalty record.

Those 1998 Chiefs left a mark beyond the record books. Amazingly, none of the players involved in the Monday night meltdown is still with us. Thomas and Simmons each died after car accidents -- Thomas in 2000, Simmons in 2002. McGlockton died last month.

5. Orton's revenge? During Thanksgiving week, the Denver Broncos decided to cut quarterback Kyle Orton and dangle him on the waiver wire, with the hopes that another team would claim the $2.5 million-plus remaining on his contract. Kansas City did, claiming him before Dallas and Chicago could.

Now, Denver is staring straight at the possibility of having to beat Orton in its regular-season finale to win the AFC West or clinch a playoff spot. Denver does not regret its decision. It knew it was riding with Tim Tebow and knew it would not be playing Orton again this season. The money the Broncos saved will be spent on players in the future.

But Orton is dangerous. He has already led the Chiefs to a victory over the previously unbeaten Packers. And in Week 17, Orton might get the chance to knock his former team out of the playoffs.

6. Rare rookies: If the 2011 draft were held all over again today, it's likely that quarterback Andy Dalton would be a top-10 pick, selected not too long after quarterback Cam Newton.

What the two rookie quarterbacks have combined to do this season is something the NFL has not seen before. Newton and Dalton have combined to give the NFL its first pair of rookie quarterbacks to throw for more than 3,000 yards. Peyton Manning threw for more than 3,000 yards during his rookie season, as did Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan. But two rookies never have done it in the same season.

It raises an interesting Offensive Rookie of the Year debate. Each quarterback can make a worthy claim. And if Dalton leads the Bengals to the playoffs, he will have an even stronger argument. But Newton has been so off-the-charts good that it's hard to imagine he will not win it, with Dalton finishing as the runner-up.

7. QB controversy in the cards? There are no "Saturday Night Live" skits about Cardinals quarterback John Skelton. There are no 10-minute soundtracks from Skelton on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown," either. Yet interestingly enough, with a 4-1 record this season as a starting quarterback, Skelton has a higher winning percentage than Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who is 7-2.

As one Cardinals player said this week, the team likes and believes in Skelton. And it has showed in the way it has performed with him at quarterback.

When Kevin Kolb is recovered from his concussion and ready to play, Arizona will have a significant quarterback decision to make. (Skelton is expected to start Saturday versus Cincinnati, according to a league source.)

It will not be easy for the Cardinals to turn away from Skelton, who was a fifth-round pick from Fordham in the same draft in which Tebow was a first-round pick from Florida. Since then, Skelton has become Fordham's biggest contribution to the NFL since it gave the league Vince Lombardi.

8. Measuring Seahawks' improvement: Here's one more way that sometimes the NFL makes no sense: If the Seattle Seahawks win one of their remaining two games -- at home against San Francisco, at Arizona -- they'll finish with more wins than they had last season. Yet last season, Seattle went to the playoffs with a 7-9 mark, and this season the Seahawks likely will fall short, even if they finish 9-7. Seattle needs two losses each from the Falcons and Lions to improbably make the postseason.

And so in a season in which they are likely to fall short, the Seahawks can tout the signs of improvement they've shown. With Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback, they have scored 30 or more points in each of their past three games. The key has been running back Marshawn Lynch, who has scored a touchdown in 10 straight games, breaking the franchise record that Shaun Alexander set in 2005 with touchdowns in nine straight games.

Seattle is building up the type of momentum it can carry into next season. But Lynch also is a free agent this offseason, and the Seahawks need to figure out a way to bring him back to Seattle.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMatthew Stafford's clutch play has put Detroit on the precipice of a playoff berth.

9. Driving Detroit: Sometimes quarterbacks need a drive that becomes a signature for them and a confidence booster for their team. Joe Montana had his 92-yard, game-winning drive to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. John Elway had his 98-yard, game-tying drive against the Cleveland Browns in the 1986 AFC Championship Game. And it's possible Matthew Stafford had one of his in Week 15.

With Detroit down six points late in the fourth quarter at Oakland, Stafford led the Lions 98 yards to a 28-27 victory. It also marked the fourth game this season in which the Lions have erased at least a 13-point deficit for a come-from-behind win.

Had the Lions lost at Oakland, they would have been on the outside of the playoff hunt looking in. But now that they won, they are one fewer victory from clinching their first playoff appearance since 1999. If the Lions beat the Chargers at home or win at Green Bay in the regular-season finale against a Packers team that is expected to have little to play for, Detroit will be back in the playoffs. And Stafford's drive against the Raiders will loom large.

10. Judging McCoy: As the debate swirls about whether Colt McCoy should be the Browns' quarterback of the future, it's worth keeping in mind a couple of issues. Had Cleveland's defense and special teams not squandered a 10-point third-quarter lead against the Bengals in Week 12, and had Phil Dawson connected on a chip-shot, game-winning field goal attempt against the Rams in Week 10, McCoy would have been a respectable 6-7 in his 13 starts, and his support would have been greater than it is now.

The margin of victory in football is so small, yet the ramifications of games that swing on single plays is so large. It doesn't make it right, but it does make it notable. Even though McCoy has struggled to lead the Browns to victories against AFC North teams in particular, it would be interesting to see what he would have done with the type of playmaking wide receivers and running backs who were absent from Cleveland's roster this season. As it is, McCoy still has been the Browns' offensive MVP. Although calls for his job come, McCoy has shown enough to deserve another chance.

The Schef's specialties

• Game of the week: Philadelphia at Dallas. For all their obituaries this season, the Eagles are not dead yet, and they get a chance Saturday to move even closer to an improbable playoff berth.

• Player of the week: Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman. Odd as it might seem, this is just the type of matchup (versus the Vikings' depleted secondary) in which Grossman can shine.

• Upset of the week: Chargers over Lions. No quarterback in the NFL is hotter than Philip Rivers, and no defense struggles against quarterbacks more than Detroit's.

Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.