Already you can hear the grinding among the foundations of NFL teams. That’s the sound of the league grinding toward a defense-first philosophy.
Despite the 2011 NFL season being proclaimed as the Year of the Quarterback (Rodgers, Brees, Brady), of the Tight End (Gronkowski, Fernandez, Graham, et al) and even of the Big Play Receiver (Calvin Johnson, AJ Green, Andre Johnson when healthy), there has been a tectonic shift to defense.
Note that Atlanta hired a new defensive coordinator, that the new coach in Tampa Bay prefers a disciplined, defense-oriented approach, and that Indianapolis and Oakland, two offense-first franchises, have opted for defensive-minded coaches.
That may be one indirect impact the 49ers had on the NFL.
Coach Jim Harbaugh proved that a strong, consistent defense and great special teams can be enough to lift a moderately dangerous offense that cuts down on mistakes to victory. Of course, the long-term success of the Steelers and the Ravens, two defense-first teams, predates this trend.
Consider the following stats from the NFC Championship.
The 49ers converted only one of 13 first downs in the game. But in the second half, both defenses become dominant. Eli Manning in the last two quarters and overtime hit on 16-of-31 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. Alex Smith, who many consider way below Manning’s talent level, was 10-of-19 for 117 yards and a touchdown.
Defenses ruled. The two Kyle Williams turnovers ultimately were the difference.
The Niners beating an amazingly strong offense in the New Orleans Saints the previous week probably provided the impetus for NFL general managers to re-assess want they want from their teams.
And perhaps that’s why you see all these teams shift their philosophy to defense-first.
And now that the Niners, outside their NFC West opponents, have the Packers, the Vikings, Bears, Lions, Patriots, Jets, Bills, Dolphins, Giants and Saints on their schedule, it goes without saying that Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke will concentrate on their strengths while keeping an eye on their needs to succeed in 2012.
Here are five players that will bring about roster changes for the 2012 49ers.