Do Patrick Willis and the 49ers harbor the league's most dominant defense?
Despite what you may hear, see or read to the contrary, savagely efficient, effective and proficient defensive units form the fundamental identity of these two clubs.
The 49ers rank No. 2 and the Bears No. 5 in total defense through 10 weeks of the 2012 campaign. They rank No. 1 and 2 respectively in scoring defense, having allowed just over 14 points per game.
San Francisco relies on its league-best linebacker contingent and suffocating front seven overall in coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 personnel grouping. Chicago’s secondary and pass-rushing defensive ends pace Rod Marinelli’s ferociously ball-hawking group aligned in the 4-3.
(To be sure, Bears’ head coach Lovie Smith has a strong influence over the team’s defense.)
Now, what deems this as a relevant topic aside from the sheer value of comparing two all-time defenses?
Three words, ladies and gentlemen—Monday Night Football.
The Bears (7-2) travel to Candlestick Park for a prime-time Week 11 matchup with the 49ers (6-2-1) on ESPN.
Each team sports a first-place record, but each is also vying for one of the top two seeds in the NFC playoff bracket.
Chicago currently holds the No. 2 spot, while San Fran is not far behind with the third seed. Securing first-round byes and home-field advantage can surely make or break a team’s Super Bowl aspirations.
With those exciting postseason implications in mind, let’s break down the Bears’ and 49ers’ historic defenses from the front lines to the safeties.
Bears’ Front Four vs. 49ers’ Front Three
The Bears operate with four defensive linemen in their base package. They specialize in generating ruthless pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Defensive ends Julius Peppers (seven sacks) and Israel Idonije (four sacks) are the Hollywood headliners leading the a group ranked No. 5 in sacks per game.
However, what makes the Bears’ D-line so special is its incredible depth and skill level across the board.
Shea McClellin and Corey Wootton serve a secondary role at DE behind Peppers and Idonije. Mind you, these men aren’t your standard everyday backups, for the duo has 6.5 sacks and 37 combined hits, hurries and QB takedowns.
Furthermore, the Bears occupying the interior of the line are largely underrated, but still embody the comprehensive skill set of the group.
Henry Melton is a top-five defensive tackle that nobody’s ever heard of. He has produced an astonishing five sacks, three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles from his tackle position. Starting right DT Stephen Paea and backup Amobi Okoye also have sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage to their names.
Chicago further prides itself in its jack-of-all-trades abilities, rather than being limited as one-trick, pass-rushing pony.
Guys like Idonije and Wootton are as phenomenal against the run as they are at pursuing the quarterback. The team has allowed just 92.3 yards per game, good for fifth in the NFL, and two rushing touchdowns for the entire season.
Moving to the 49ers’ camp, this powerful corps uses three down linemen as opposed to the Bears’ four.
Justin Smith and Ray McDonald serve dual roles as defensive ends and tackles in this alignment. They occupy multiple offensive linemen and seal the edges so the linebackers behind them are free to make plays. As such, they do not amass the same type of pass-rushing statistics as their Bears’ counterparts.
That also doesn’t mean they’re any less effective in their defensive assignments.
Despite having just 0.5 sacks between each other, Smith and McDonald still rate as top-10 players at their position. They have logged two out of the three largest snap totals by 3-4 defensive ends in the entire league, proving indefatigable week in and week out.
Both are incredible in run defense and in dominating the trenches even while being outmanned. Surrendering the league’s third-lowest yards-per-carry average (3.7) in addition to helping open lanes for the 49ers’ linebackers to accumulate sacks reflect these defensive stalwarts' commitment and effective play up front.
Smith’s 31 solo tackles—a mark worthy of second-most among players at his position—and the duo’s league-high 29 combined QB hurries don’t hurt either.
Additionally, San Francisco’s base defense is predicated on a massive and athletic nose tackle clogging the middle of the line. Isaac Sopoaga is having a down year in that capacity, but is not far removed from his status as one of the better 3-4 tackles around.
When he’s on, “Soap” holds his own remarkably well against two or more linemen to win the line of scrimmage battle for the 49ers.
Overall, Smith is a walking Defensive Player of the Year candidate and one of the strongest men in the NFL. He and McDonald play with an unrivaled level of intelligence, determination and hard-hitting style.
They perform the dirty work that goes unrewarded in the box scores, but that which is entirely fundamental toward the 49ers’ dominating ways on defense.
Chicago has the depth, versatility, individual statistics and league-wide rankings to prove its advantage over the 49ers in this area of the field.
Bears’ Linebacker Trio vs. 49ers’ Linebacker Foursome
Chicago features an exceptional corps at the linebacker position.
Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are nearly unmatched when it comes to covering running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Briggs has reduced opposing quarterbacks to a 67.4 rating when throwing in his direction. Urlacher hasn’t allowed a single touchdown all season.
And each credits at least one interception, one forced fumble and one defensive touchdown to their 2012 statistical accomplishments.
In other words, both occupy the realm of NFL preeminence as coverage linebackers.
On the other hand, these seasoned veterans’ of a combined 23 years of NFL service have reduced their effectiveness elsewhere.
They have lost a noticeable step and cannot bring adequate pressure on the quarterback. While the role of ‘backers in a 4-3 Tampa-2 defense don’t necessarily have to be rushing stalwarts, their on-field repertoire is increasingly limited at this stage of their careers.
The same goes for their capabilities against the run. Briggs is the most reliable of the bunch, but Nick Roach and especially Urlacher are often liabilities in this defensive assignment.
Then again, Urlacher plays with such amazing football savvy. He realizes that supreme talent surrounds him on all sides, allowing him to remain an elite player overall while hiding deficiencies in creative ways.
All told, Smith and Marinelli’s Tampa-2 schemes would not function properly without Briggs’ or Urlacher’s contributions on the gridiron.
Now, if the Bears’ linebackers are exceptional and somewhat preeminent, then the 49ers’ foursome is Herculean, superior and downright legendary.
Patrick Willis is equally, if not more dominant in coverage as Chicago’s leading ILB. The awesome pundits at Pro Football Focus (membership required) reveal as much.
NaVorro Bowman—Willis’ partner in crime—has forced quarterbacks into a lower passer efficiency rating than have all other NFL inside ‘backers. He also has two sacks, two QB hits and two QB hurries in 2012.
In run defense, Willis and Bowman possess otherworldly speed, athleticism and sideline-to-sideline abilities. They diagnose, track and neutralize opposing ball carriers. They operate with insanely high football IQs and scoff at the mere notion of missing a tackle.
Together this duo qualifies as the undeniable best at inside linebacker.
But as follows with the personnel involved in a 3-4 front, there must also exist two additional players at this position.
The 49ers happen to have a couple of good ones in Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith.
Brooks is a lauded gridiron warrior that fulfills all duties required by his position.
The strong-side OLB tackles, covers, plays the run and rushes the quarterback with equal success. He leads outside backers in pass breakups and ranks top four in combined QB pressures and defensive stuffs.
Smith plays on the other end as the weak-side OLB. He has ascended into one of the most dominant pass-rushers since his arrival in the league just one season ago.
The former college defensive end has collected 9.5 sacks this year, as well as 36 total tackles and two stuffs. His work in defending opposing rushers is also top-notch.
Smith is a certifiable game-changer that needs only to improve at playing fluidly in coverage against tight ends and running backs.
These four linebackers are the prime reason the 49ers have ranked in the upper echelon of NFL defenses for the past two years.
Four is greater than three, and youth is more potent than old age. The 49ers don’t really have a weakness at this position, while the Bears do.
Bears’ Secondary vs. 49ers’ Defensive Backs
We end finally with a comparison of the back end of these two feared defenses.
The Bears have two of the best at cornerback in Charles “Peanut” Tillman and Tim Jennings.
Tillman epitomizes the essence of a shutdown corner and has assumed the No. 1 spot among all current players manning the position in the NFL. He boasts a patently absurd stat sheet filled with interceptions, touchdowns, forced fumbles and a general collection of game-changing plays.
As not to be outdone, Jennings leads the league with eight interceptions. He is yet another Bears DB with points accrued on the defensive side of the ball.
Quarterbacks are completing a paltry 49.4 percent of their passes with an overall rating of 36.7 when throwing in Jennings’ direction.
D.J. Moore is a fine third corner who has two picks and four pass breakups of his own.
At strong safety, Major Wright is a big-time force with a balanced skill set. He has neutralized tight ends and backs being flexed out wide to the tune of three interceptions and zero touchdowns allowed. His play against the run has been high-quality as well.
Free safety Chris Conte isn’t nearly the player of Wright’s ilk, but isn’t a glaring weakness in the secondary either.
He is the seventh Bears’ defender with an interception to his name. He provides good size and length with his 6’2", 203-pound frame.
The 49ers’ corps of defensive backs isn’t quite as celebrated as the one in Chicago.
Chris Culliver, currently No. 3 on the cornerback depth chart, seems to devalue the legitimacy of such rankings. He's been far and away the team’s most valuable at the position.
His list of statistical merits includes a team-leading two interceptions, nine pass breakups and a quarterback completion percentage and efficiency rating in the lower 40s.
Tarell Brown is a step above Culliver on the roster order and has generally honored that status. He has not given up a receiving touchdown and ranks second in pass breakups.
Fans can feel confident in Brown’s continued mistake-free football for the Red and Gold.
We cannot say the same about Carlos Rogers.
Quarterbacks have a 96.0 efficiency rating and are connecting on an outrageous 75 percent of their passes when throwing at Rogers. Speedy slot receivers have absolutely feasted on the 49ers’ CB, with the Rams’ Danny Amendola being the latest example.
Impressive work in run defense assignments and a touchdown off a fumble recovery represent the positive contributions from the team’s supposed No. 1 corner.
The 49ers will find themselves in a compromising position, though, if Rogers doesn’t turn things around quickly with regards to covering the opposition’s No. 1 wideout.
Lastly, free safety Dashon Goldson has been the star of San Francisco’s defensive backfield. He’s tied with Culliver for the team lead in interceptions in addition to logging a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
The once high-risk, high-reward nature of Goldson’s play has been nothing but the latter of those two qualities in 2012.
Donte Whitner, Goldson’s partner at the safety position, experienced his lumps early on but has since recovered in commendable fashion. While once being a liability when covering big-bodied tight ends (three TDs given up), Whitner now provides a much-needed security blanket over top.
His quick-strike pursuit of opposing ball carriers consistently helps the 49ers stamp out big-play potential before it’s allowed to materialize. One might call Whitner the “cherry on top” for the 49ers' second-ranked defense.
Much like certain holes in Chicago’s linebacker armor, San Francisco’s weakness undoubtedly lies in the secondary.
Overall Edge: Bears
The Chicago Bears have induced opponents into 30 turnovers. The 49ers have just 13 takeaways. The Bears have racked up 26 sacks this season. San Francisco has only 17.
So everyone—who really does feature the more dominating defense?
In a test of strength against speed, bone-crushing tackles vs. turnover mania, and composed fundamentals next to proactive multidimensional attacks, the Bears deserve the nod in this battle royal between dominating defenses.
Chicago’s defense quite literally wins games on its own with an incredible capacity to put points on the board via an array of interceptions, forced fumbles and game-altering turnovers.
San Francisco is well-coached, fundamentally sound and shuts down opponents on the regular. It’s ice-bath central for teams leaving the field after a tussle with the 49ers’ D.
However, it relies too much on two defensive linemen playing nearly every snap and on perfection by its linebackers. Turnovers occur far too sparingly, and sacks and overall quarterback pressure are generated from a couple select players. The secondary has legitimate questions surrounding it as well.
The 49ers’ defense is Super Bowl-quality, but so is the Bears’ contingent. Ultimately, with more impact playmakers across the board, Chicago has the better unit.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16