NEW ORLEANS — For the majority of the season, it was the backbone of the 49ers. The consistent phase of the team that would show up week in and week out.
But down the stretch, the 49ers’ defense, particularly the pass defense, showed its vulnerability and it ultimately caught up to them in Super Bowl XLVII.
Through the first 13 games of the regular season, the Niners were allowing 14.2 points per game. Their final six, which includes the three postseason games? That number skyrocketed up to 29.7.
A deluge of reasons are behind the massive difference in stats, a decreased pass rush among them, but safety Donte Whitner believes a lot of it had to do with the level of opposition the Niners faced late in the season.
“We played some really, really good quarterbacks, some really good offenses,” he said. “That’s something we put our hand on. We have a good defense and we have a young defense. It’s a young core of guys and we will be fine.”
Whitner and the rest of the Niners secondary did have to face the likes of Tom Brady and Russell Wilson late in the regular season and Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in the playoffs. And while San Francisco shined at times, blanking the Atlanta Falcons in the second half of the NFC Championship Game among them, it often came after a forgettable start to a game. And Sunday’s Super Bowl was more of the same.
The Ravens did what the Ravens do. They took shots down the field with their big, athletic receivers and made plays. QB Joe Flacco put the ball in a spot where his playmakers could attack it and they did, evidenced by Jacoby Jones’ stumbling 56-yard TD and Anquan Boldin hauling in an improbable 30-yard catch over Niners cornerback Chris Culliver on a third-and-7 situation.
“We had some one-on-ones and we are expected to win them,” linebacker Patrick Willis said. “In the first quarter and the first half, we didn’t win.”
The good news for the 49ers is that despite their late season woes on defense, the core of the unit which had six Pro Bowlers is intact. Safety Dashon Goldson and defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga are the only defensive starters not under contract for next season. And the Niners could use the franchise tag on Goldson, like they did this past season.
But as optimistic as the future is, falling agonizingly short in the Super Bowl is a tough pill to swallow for San Francisco.
“This is kind of tough to get this far and let everything slip away through your hands,” linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “The funny thing about it is within the next few months, we’re going to start trying to get back to the same place that we’re at right now.”