2013 Preview: Ranking the Five Best Defenses in the NFL

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4. San Francisco 49ers 

Despite some struggles in the playoffs, the 49ers might have the league’s most talented defense.

Patrick Willis leads a group that finished third in total defense and second in points allowed, surrendering a meager 17.1 PPG. In the playoffs, the 49ers gave up an average of 29.7 PPG, which isn’t desirable by any means. In a way, the defense collapsed down the stretch, as they also gave up 34 points to the New England Patriots and 42 points to the Seattle Seahawks in Weeks 15 and 16.

December 9, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (99) breaks the line before recording a sack against the Miami Dolphins in the fourth quarter at Candlestick Park. The 49ers defeated the Dolphins 27-13. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The 49er secondary didn’t perform well down the stretch, as Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver were liabilities. Culliver gave up big plays in Super Bowl 47, and because of the lack of a good No. 2 corner (opposite Tarell Brown), the 49ers were torched by Joe Flacco.

Still, they made plays when they needed to. At least one turnover was forced by San Francisco in its last eight games, including two against the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs. They can make game-changing plays, and that’s part of the reason why the 49ers were in the Super Bowl.

With the Falcons driving and poised to extend their 24-21 lead (in the third quarter of the NFC Championship), Culliver intercepted a pass to halt the drive. While Roddy White, the intended receiver on the play, slipped, it was a huge play and good instincts by Culliver, who jumped the pass. A blitz forced Ryan into a bonehead fumble later in the quarter, and Aldon Smith made a huge play by jumping on the ball.

San Francisco shut down some good offenses as well. Green Bay scored 22 and 31 on the 49ers, but a questionable punt return boosted Green Bay’s score in the season opener (in which they scored 22 points) and an interception returned for a touchdown added seven points to Green Bay’s total of 31 in the playoffs. In addition, a questionable pass inference call negated an interference call in the playoffs, which set up another Packer touchdown.

Detroit and New Orleans had two of the league’s most prolific offenses, but the Saints managed just 21 points and the Lions managed just 19 (against the 49ers). San Francisco returned two interceptions for touchdowns against New Orleans, while they flat-out shut down the Lions.

The 49ers have a lot of great defensive players, with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith getting to the quarterback, Willis and NaVorro Bowman anchoring the middle of the field and Donte Whitner and Brown in the secondary. The 49ers have a bit of a hole at safety and corner, but they can patch those up rather easily with a boatload of draft picks.

The stats say the 49ers have a great defense, and the stats don’t lie. The 49ers will contend again in 2013, and the defense will be a big reason why.