When the San Francisco 49ers are pounding the rock, controlling the clock and taking the ball away from the opposition, they are one of the most feared teams in the NFL. Those three things make this team tick, and that was evident on Sunday Night Football against the Houston Texans.
Despite missing inside linebacker Patrick Willis, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and outside linebacker Aldon Smith, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense made quarterback Matt Schaub’s night an absolute nightmare. The 49ers forced four turnovers, recorded one sack and held the Texans to three points on 12 drives in their 34-3 blowout.
Moreover, Houston only managed to convert six of its 16 third-down attempts, and its average starting field position was its own 21-yard line. San Francisco’s defense looked like it jumped in a time machine and went back to 2012.
Over the course of the first four games of the season, a solid defensive effort for four straight quarters was nonexistent. There were brilliant stretches at times, but that’s it. No performance from Weeks 1-4 were on the same level as Sunday’s outing.
Fourth-year cornerback Tramaine Brock came out and set the tone on the opening drive of the game when he housed Schaub’s first pass. Brock’s pick-six not only set the tone, it gave the 49ers offense an opportunity to play with the lead.
It ended up playing a huge role in offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s game plan. Instead of having to rely on quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s arm, the early lead allowed the Niners to establish their power-run game.
And we all know the 49ers are at their best when they can wear the opposition down with a heavy dose of Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. Yet, Brock wasn’t the only defensive player who got in on the action. Safety Donte Whitner and second-year undrafted free agent Michael Wilhoite played key roles as well.
Whitner patrolled the back end of Fangio's defense to near perfection, and Wilhoite turned in the best game of his young career.
When the clock struck zero, Whitner had tallied three total tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Even though the forced fumble meant little to the outcome of the game, it exemplified a toughness level and an attitude the 49ers have been desperately seeking.
Wilhoite, on the other hand, didn’t force a turnover or make any highlight-reel plays like Whitner, but he did set a precedent over the middle of the field. His 13 solo tackles and three tackles for loss were both team highs. However, a sound statistical line doesn’t always tell the whole story.
In addition to top-notch numbers, Wilhoite showed the nation that his ability to cover the pass is up to snuff as well. Tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham failed in terms of getting up the seam. They did most of their damage outside the hashes along the sideline.
With starters returning to the lineup in the coming weeks, it’s clear that the 49ers' most productive games are ahead of them. Aside from their defensive outputs the last two weeks, the ground game is starting to peak, and wide receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree are both due back by the end of November.
Furthermore, San Francisco’s schedule looks to get a whole lot easier from here on out. Its biggest games are against the New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons. Two of those are at home, so the 49ers should be favored.
Don’t get me wrong: The Arizona Cardinals and the Tennessee Titans won’t be a walk in the park, yet it’s clear head coach Jim Harbaugh’s club is the better team right now. Plus, quarterback Jake Locker will be out when the Niners play the Titans, and Carson Palmer isn’t exactly putting forth his best effort right now as the Cardinals signal-caller.
In-season adjustments and improved health go a long way in the NFL, which means organizations around the league should be taking notice of the 49ers’ recent success.
They are growing healthier by the week, and their adaptation on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball is helping them hit their stride. Not to mention, they are only one game out in the NFC West.
If we’ve learned anything since Harbaugh took over in 2011, it's that doubting the Niners and what they are capable of is never a wise decision. Heading into Week 6, there’s no question San Francisco is slowly starting to establish itself as the most dominant team in football.
Come playoff time, the 49ers will be a force to be reckoned with.