The 49ers have the best defense in football and the numbers back it up

49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /
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49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

Pundits call the New England Patriots defense the best in the NFL, but we dive into the numbers and make a case for the San Francisco 49ers.

By now, everyone in the NFL knows about the San Francisco 49ers. The 10-1 Niners are led by an elite defense that has received tons of praise. However, on the other side of the country, the New England Patriots defense is considered the best in the league.

We take a look and dive into the numbers to find evidence that San Francisco is on par, if not better, than the Patriots.

Just a missed 47-yard field goal attempt away from an undefeated 11-0 record, the 49ers are one of the best teams in football. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo remains an enigmatic figure.

Those in and around the organization remain confident he is one of the ten best quarterbacks in football. Outsiders have been especially critical, calling him the organization’s weakest link.

The one thing everyone believes in is the dominance of this team’s defense. Prior to the season, it was clear that the additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford gave San Francisco a defensive line capable of dominating games, but there were reasonable questions surrounding their linebackers and defensive backs.

Instead, the defensive line was even better than expected and a number of young players have emerged to make each level of the 49ers defense elite.

Even after injuries to Kwon Alexander and Ahkello Witherspoon, a pair of youngsters (Dre Greenlaw and Emmanuel Moseley) impressed in their places.

The defense dominated on the national stage against the Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks, and Green Bay Packers. Pundits are willing to compliment everything about this defense, coaching staff included, but there’s one compliment they will not give.

Calling the 49ers the best defense in football. That title has undoubtedly belonged to the New England Patriots, the only other one-loss team in the NFL.

With my coverage focused on the Bay Area, I’ve watched nearly every play of the 49ers season. I have not seen much of the Pats this season, but I came of age amidst the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco.

Before Colin Kaepernick took their offense to the next level, the team relied on Frank Gore to carry the ball behind a strong offensive line, Alex Smith to run a solid West Coast passing attack that did not turn the ball over, and an elite defense led by Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Justin Smith.

Willis, Bowman, and Smith were the stalwarts of one of the best defensive units in the league, but this year’s 49ers defense may be….better.

While only time will tell, this defense appears to have more talent and depth at nearly every position (with exception to linebacker). It frankly is hard for me to believe the 49ers are not the best defense in football.

But, the numbers never lie, right?

All Defensive Drives (1)

Team  Drives   YDS Per Drive   Punt %   Score %   TO %   Downs %   Missed FG%   AVG Start 
49ers 122 21.9 47.5% 22.1% 18.0% 10.7% 1.6% 27.7
125 21.1 51.2% 14.4%   21.6% 8.8% 1.6% 24.1
    League 3661 32.3 40.8% 37.5% 12.8% 4.9% 3.6% 28.4

(1) All drives had to feature at least one play (to remove pick-six and fumbles returned for touchdowns counted as defensive drives), not result in kneel-downs, end a half, or end a game. Data courtesy of Pro Football Reference Drive Finder.

This is where the argument for the Patriots lies. They give up fewer yards per drive, force punts at a greater rate, force more turnovers, and force more punts.

There really is no argument in the table above for the 49ers, but I thought there might have been something hiding below the surface.

Spoiler alert, there was.