49ers defense should be proud of playoff performance 

click to enlarge Walking tall: Defensive Player of the Year candidate Justin Smith, left, and Ray McDonald, who recorded 2½ sacks Sunday, should be proud of their unit’s effort. - JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES
  • Jamie Squire/Getty Images
  • Walking tall: Defensive Player of the Year candidate Justin Smith, left, and Ray McDonald, who recorded 2½ sacks Sunday, should be proud of their unit’s effort.

The 49ers’ winning formula finally failed them.

All season, the 49ers had relied on strong defense, efficient offense, great special teams and, most of all, winning the turnover battle.

Not in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. This time, two costly mistakes by kick returner Kyle Williams cost them a game they should have won in regulation.

The 49ers’ defenders almost won this one by themselves. They had shut down the Giants in the second half and, though the 49ers hardly had an overwhelming lead at 14-10, it seemed enough because the defense was slowing down Eli Manning and his receivers.

Then Williams committed his first error, letting a Giants punt hit him in the knee. The Giants recovered and soon scored a touchdown to take a 17-14 lead. The 49ers could manage no more than a field goal to send the game into overtime.

Twice in OT, the 49ers defense shut down the Giants, but the second time, Williams was stripped of the ball as he was returning a punt and the Giants recovered, already in field goal range. They maneuvered the ball closer for the winning kick.

The loss must have really stung the defensive unit, which, as always, played its heart out. This time, it wasn’t enough.

Still, it’s time to recognize this 49ers defense as one of the great units of all time.

The statistics don’t bear that out because rule changes have benefited the offenses, which is why you’re seeing these huge offensive numbers, which fans love. In any sport, fans prefer a lot of offense, and so do the TV people. Makes for a better show.

That’s why it’s so hard to compare from previous eras. For instance, I’ve always regarded the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers — the first of the teams that won four Super Bowls in six years — as the best defensive unit I’ve ever seen, but those Steelers had advantages no NFL defense has now.

For instance, defensive backs played the hit-and-run, emphasis on the hit. They could hit receivers all over the field. Now, they’re allowed only one hit, at the line of scrimmage. Anything else is a penalty. Linebackers could level receivers if they came across the middle of the field.

The pet play of the Bill Walsh offense, the slant across the middle of the field with the receiver running for extra yardage, was made possible by a rules change in the late ’70s preventing those hits by linebackers. Before that, no team ran pass patterns into the middle of the field unless they were well beyond the linebackers.

The 49ers have adjusted well to the new style of play. They know they can’t shut teams down totally, so they go for interceptions. They narrowly missed a couple Sunday that could have turned the game around earlier.

They are also relentless. Rookie Aldon Smith got a sack Sunday because Giants quarterback Eli Manning thought he’d been blocked. He hadn’t.

Smith just kept churning his legs to get around his blocker and came at Manning from the back.

This kind of effort has kept the 49ers going all season. It wasn’t enough this time, but with that defense, they’ll be back.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at glenndickey36@gmail.com.

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Glenn Dickey

Glenn Dickey

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