Let's take just a second and gather some of the 49ers' team accomplishments in 2011 from a statistical standpoint.
We're all aware that San Francisco benefited from an NFL-best plus-28 turnover ratio, a number that was undeniably responsible for a great deal of their success a year ago.
A staunch run defense held opposing teams without a rushing touchdown for the first 14 games of the season, leading to a league-low three rushing TDs given up on the year.
Also, a fierce pass rush led by rookie phenom Aldon Smith helped the Niners D tally 42 sacks (ranked seventh in NFL), and sound tackling was a popular theme throughout.
And, of course, special teams play was huge. Kicker David Akers booted an NFL-record 44 field goals on 52 attempts.
But, a deeper look into the stats offers a few more clues to what made this well-rounded bunch so successful a season ago.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh is a tireless worker that stresses attention to detail, and that surprisingly shows through in the numbers, despite the lockout eating most of his first offseason with the team.
Let us now look into four different statistical categories that often go unmentioned when analyzing San Francisco's success in the 2011 season.
Sure, the 49ers didn't even average one fourth-down attempt per game in 2011, but that doesn't mean we should render it a meaningless statistic.
Take a Week 6 road matchup against the Detroit Lions, for example.
The Lions, at the time, boasted an undefeated 5-0 record and were defending their turf in front of a raucous home crowd. I was in attendance at Ford Field (sporting my Patrick Willis away jersey and much more 49ers gear, of course), and believe me, it was loud.
With 1:56 remaining in the 4th quarter, Detroit led 19-15 and the 49ers found themselves with the ball, facing a 4th-and-6 at the Lions' 6-yard line.
Down four points, a field goal wouldn't suffice for Harbaugh and his offense. A touchdown was a must, and Jimbo would need to rely on QB Alex Smith to deliver.
And deliver he did.
TE Delanie Walker lined up wide on the right sideline, WR Michael Crabtree was inside of him on the line of scrimmage and Alex was in the shotgun.
Upon the snap, Crabtree runs a decoy route to the back corner of the end zone while Walker slants in straight toward the middle of the field. Smith, taking the snap from the shotgun, drops just one step, plants and fires a laser square into Walker's chest as he falls (barely) into the front of the end zone with 1:51 left to play.
If you think this was an easy throw, you're dead wrong. It required a perfectly placed pass by Alex and precise route running by Walker and Crabtree for this fourth down to be converted.
Also, credit Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman for placing their guys in a position to be successful with another masterful play call.
So, to make this long story short, fourth downs were huge for San Francisco in 2011.
While the well-documented third down woes were an issue, some of them were a result of Harbaugh's decision to play conservative football and rely on the defense.
But when the offense needed to dial it up in a crucial situation, they showed they can be successful.
You can view the touchdown from a 49er fan's perspective (not mine) in the stands at Ford Field, here.
For better viewing, tune in to this clip at the 5:35 mark to see the touchdown as it was presented on TV.
Frank Gore protects the pigskin with the best of them.
RB Carries in 2011:
49ers fans spend a great deal of time commending Frank Gore and the amazing things he's accomplished in Red and Gold.
One aspect of his game that isn't credited enough, however, is ball security.
As Gore's illustrious career wears on, his ability to protect the rock only improves. And this, coupled with a coach in Harbaugh that stresses not turning the ball over, helps the 49ers' running backs eliminate fumbles nearly altogether.
San Francisco's amount of run plays in 2011 (498) far exceeded that of any season in recent years. Not since 2003 (499 runs) had the 49ers come so close to carrying the rock 500 times in a season.
Their ability to run, and to do so efficiently, has become a vital part of their success.
When I played football, there was no end-of-practice game nearly as exciting as a good ole' round of fumblerooski (Fumble King may be a more appropriate name).
For those who haven't played, here's a brief explanation. And although similar, I'm not referring to the play made famous by the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
A coach forms players into two lines, assigning a one-on-one match against your teammate next to you in line. The two players at the front of the line go into a three-point stance and wait for the coach holding the football (standing behind them and in between the two lines) to throw the ball into their view.
Once the ball is in view (you must be looking straight ahead, no peeking!), the chase begins. The first of the two to recover the wildly-bouncing football advances to the next round, until a winner is eventually crowned.
I don't know whether or not Harbaugh employs this entertaining and effective practice drill, but his defense just happened to fall on more loose fumbles than any other team in the NFL.
Of course, the fumblerooski drill is designed to increase hustle and awareness.
When the pigskin pops loose, no one knows where in the heck it'll bounce once it reaches the gridiron. It's not round, and it is therefore rather unpredictable.
Nonetheless, the 49ers would successfully hop on 15 fumbles 2011, good for a 75-percent conversion rate. In terms of fumble recoveries, no one in the NFL was better.
Look back to a Week 2 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles for a prime example of how this helped the 49ers' season become so memorable.
With 2:15 to go in the fourth quarter and a 24-23 lead, the 49ers were letting Vick's Eagles march down the field at a rapid pace.
That is, until Justin Smith's relentless hustle helped him knock the ball loose from WR Jeremy Maclin's grasp at the Niners' 35-yard line as Philly looked to take the lead.
But as the ball flew to the turf, it was FS Dashon Goldson's remarkable awareness to recognize the ball on the ground and jump on it for a recovery right before it darted out of bounds and remained Eagles ball.
This allowed SF to run out the clock and, ultimately, win the game.
Tune into this video and forward to the 3:26 mark to see the action unfold once again (or for the first time, if you haven't seen it).
Opp. Pass Attempts:
In 2011, the 49ers defense deflected or defended 101 of the 579 passes opposing signal callers attempted against them.
Only the Baltimore Ravens (107) finished the season with a higher total.
This is another testament to the sound 49ers' coaching staff, particularly defensive backs coach Ed Donatell.
Hustle, athleticism and sound technique make it possible for covering defenders to keep pace with receivers and to interrupt the pass coming in from the QB.
San Francisco loves to draft athletic defenders, and Donatell is the perfect man to mold talents like Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver and Goldson into productive NFL players.
Even veterans Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner benefited a great deal from Donatell's presence.
Next year, I believe the 49ers will be even better in pass coverage than they were in 2011.
Any other underrated stats I failed to mention? Let's debate them in the comments below.
Oh, and thanks for reading.
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