Unbeknownst to some proud fans of the San Francisco 49ers, there’s a team whose defense may actually be just as good.
Or even better.
The Arizona Cardinals are undefeated on the young season by way of a dominant defense. It has erased any underdog notions by leading the team to a 3-0 record against the favored Seahawks, Patriots and Eagles.
San Francisco’s defense, meanwhile, performed up to—and beyond—expectations through the first two weeks. Its performance against the inferior Vikings left much to be desired, however, in Week 3.
Let’s now compare the two units individually and make a final conclusion as to who is the better unit both right now and moving forward.
How good is the 49ers defense? Very good.
How good is it right now? Not very good.
San Francisco allowed 344 yards to a Vikings offense that required overtime to reach that mark against the Jaguars in Week 1. Minnesota did not produce that output last week even against the defensively challenged Colts.
The 49ers were off their game in all kinds of ways against this offense on Sunday.
Aside from initially stopping Adrian Peterson, the Niners defense failed in the things it does best. AP finished under the century mark, but the Vikings as a whole rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown.
That touchdown, by the way, came off a quarterback scramble. Christian Ponder knifed straight through the heart of the defense for a 23-yard score. That pushed Minnesota’s lead to 14-3.
In the passing game, Ponder looked more like a savvy veteran than NFL sophomore.
He threw for only 198, but twice hit tight end Kyle Rudolph for scores. It was a short-yardage passing attack that absolutely picked apart an elite D.
It’s also rare that QBR and the suddenly antiquated quarterback rating come out so similarly. Ponder’s QBR was 90.0, while his rating was 94.7. He basically was awesome by all statistical metrics.
The 49ers defense, for their part, allowed him to be.
The debacle last week notwithstanding, this unit is thoroughly talented from the defensive line to the safeties. It begins with the best 3-4 in the business.
DE Justin Smith is the defensive-player-of-the-year-type that only head coaches can fully appreciate. He consistently occupies double teams, sets the edge against the run and gets after the QB in a way that only the strongest man in the NFL can.
Ray McDonald mans the opposite end and performs his role in sufficiently underrated fashion. His sack and eight QB hurries are testament to the way he disrupts the passing game that often goes unnoticed.
Moving to the linebackers, it isn’t breaking news that the 49ers harbor the preeminent duo in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They both cover sideline to sideline in both the run and pass with remarkable proficiency.
Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks comprise the starting outside linebackers. Brooks is great in all aspects at his position, while Smith represents the class of edge rushers. The sophomore also operates well against opposing running backs and is only getting better.
Then there’s the 49ers secondary.
Even while showing momentary lapses in Minnesota, this remains a deep and talented corps. Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox represent said depth and talent at the cornerback position. Safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner sport Pro Bowl resumes as well.
Let’s now move to the opposing sideline.
The Cardinals defense played remarkably well down the stretch in 2011.
It surrendered just 18 points per game while helping fuel the team to a 7-2 finish in the final nine games.
In 2012, Ray Horton’s unit has not missed a beat.
It has shut down prolific offenses to the extent of 13 points per game allowed. The Seahawks are still developing, but the Patriots and Eagles feature some of the most explosive personnel in the league.
Particularly against Philadelphia, the Cardinals made mince meat of Michael Vick and company.
They sacked Vick five times and kept the Eagles out of the end zone all game long. James Sanders' 93-yard fumble return, a 24-0 lead midway through the third and Vick’s ghastly 5.4 QBR were emblematic of Arizona’s dominant efforts.
Furthermore, the Cardinals, like the 49ers, roll out quality players from the front line to the secondary.
Their 3-4 defensive ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett are top-five players at their position. A combined 15 QB hurries, seven hits, three pass breakups and two sacks speak for themselves.
Linebackers Sam Acho and Daryl Washington play the run extremely well and also have four sacks between them.
Regarding the defensive backs, Patrick Peterson continually plays himself into the upper echelon of NFL cornerbacks. He has not given up a touchdown and quarterbacks have a meager 19.7 rating when throwing in his direction.
Also, Adrian Wilson is the cream of the crop at strong safety, and fellow veteran Kerry Rhodes is putting up a fine campaign thus far in 2012.
Taken together, the Cardinals rate as the No. 10 defense.
Their abilities to bring down the opposing quarterback are only surpassed by the Bears. Seven different players have registered a sack, while safety James Sanders gives a great name to the backups with his fumble return for a TD.
And the fact that they limited the high-powered Patriots offense to 18 points—at Gillette Stadium, mind you—is an astonishing feat. West coast teams are just not supposed to travel clear across the country and take down opponents in such a manner.
All that said, are Arizona’s playmakers and performance through three games sufficient to dethrone the league's top-ranked unit of 2011?
Winner: Cardinals Now, 49ers Moving Forward
In the short term pertaining to the 2012 campaign, the Cardinals have slightly outperformed their NFC West brethren.
If this evaluation came after the first two weeks, the 49ers would have the undeniable edge. They put the clamps down on Aaron Rodgers’ Packers and Matthew Stafford’s Lions in ways that no other team could possible achieve.
However, this review comes after the first three weeks of this fledgling NFL season.
With the Cardinals’ impressive work against the Eagles on Sunday, and in conjunction with the 49ers’ lackluster performance against the Vikings, Arizona wins the short-term battle.
As for the war moving forward, San Francisco is still the leader of that overarching campaign.
The respective defensive lines rate out as a push, though the 49ers' Justin Smith is the best among either squad and could easily give his team the advantage.
But the remaining eight qualify the 49ers as the clear-cut winners of this debate.
San Francisco’s linebackers are without reproach and deserve the nomination of the best in the business. The secondary is much deeper and harbors more comprehensive talent than the Cardinals as well.
Now it comes down to the October 29 battle on Monday Night Football between these two hard-hitting clubs for ownership of defensive supremacy.
With Vic Fangio's 49ers at home and looking to avenge last season’s loss in Arizona, San Fran gets the Cards’ pink slip on this one.
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