49ers' defense wants sustained elite status

Donte Whitner, 31, says improved communication will strengthen the 49ers' already stout defense. Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

The absurdity of the San Francisco 49ers going 14 games without allowing a rushing touchdown met its match in how the streak ended.

A blocked punt delivered possession to Seattle at the 49ers' 4-yard line in the final seven minutes of a Week 16 game at CenturyLink Field. Marshawn Lynch ran it in.

A week later, Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens scored on an 18-yard scramble that matched the longest run of his career.

Late in the same game, with the 49ers ahead by two touchdowns, the Rams recovered an onside kick and promptly advanced to the 1-yard line on a 35-yard penalty for pass interference. Cadillac Williams ran it in.

2011 49ers Defense

The 49ers came within a blocked punt, a career-long run from a backup quarterback and a 35-yard penalty of preventing even one rushing touchdown all season. As it was, San Francisco set an NFL record for fewest allowed in a 16-game season.

Not bad for a team with a new coaching staff, a severely compressed offseason and five new defensive starters. (A sixth, Isaac Sopoaga, changed positions on the line.)

Here's a thought for upcoming opponents: All signs point to defensive improvement for the 49ers in 2012. That doesn't mean the results will be better across the board. Defenses need field-position help from their offenses and special teams. Schedules matter, too. And it's unrealistic to expect another 14-game run without allowing a rushing TD. But there's every reason to expect faster, more precise and more confident play from a unit that allowed 14.3 points per game, the third-best average in team history.

That message came through clearly during a discussion with safety Donte Whitner after a minicamp practice two weeks ago. Whitner, who didn't even sign with the 49ers until camp was under way in August, says the difference will be in the details. As good as the 49ers were on defense last season -- the unit produced 42 sacks, 38 turnovers, three first-team All-Pro selections, two finalists for defensive player of the year and the most impressive defensive rookie this side of Von Miller -- they ran a dumbed-down version of coordinator Vic Fangio's system.

"It was almost like jimmying it, a makeshift thing," Whitner said. "Putting this player here, teaching this one day, then teaching another player something different the next day, because time was cut so short without training camp and OTAs, and not being able to have attention to detail. Vic had to simplify what we were doing and it still worked."

How they can improve

Lining up with a defense featuring Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson and Whitner put the 49ers at an advantage over most offenses. But the most consistently formidable defenses -- think Pittsburgh, think Baltimore -- have been together within the same system for multiple seasons. Communication becomes second nature. Familiarity with the system allows for more advanced scheming.

It's about understanding not only what the coaches are calling on a given play but also why they're calling it and what options exist within it. Players become an extension of their coaches. They learn to anticipate.

"You can give the linebackers options on what coverage we're going to play based on what players are at certain positions on the field," Whitner explained. "For example, if we were going up against a tight end like Vernon Davis in a three-by-one formation, there would be 2-3-4 calls to take him out, and they would give us the freedom to do that. But in order to do that, everybody has to be on the same page."

The safeties would have to communicate details to the linebackers. The linebackers would have to communicate with the defensive linemen. Whitner, the strong safety, would have to communicate with Goldson, the free safety, who might let the right cornerback, Tarell Brown, know he won't have help on the play, while informing the left corner, Rogers, that he's got backup. And it would all happen instinctively.

"There are so many different little things that we didn't get to do last year," Whitner said. "It actually takes two to three years to really get all the verbiage down, to really understand that I know this player is going to be where he’s supposed to be even if he is disguising. We are reaching that comfort level. Last year in the playoffs was just a small taste of what we can do on defense."

The sustainability factor

History says the 49ers cannot count on finishing plus-28 in turnover differential. That margin was the fattest in 49ers history. It led the NFL last season.

Research has established that fumble recoveries tend to be random. The 49ers, despite that plus-28 margin, actually recovered fewer than half of their opponents' fumbles (15 of 31). They were not especially lucky in a category that could easily swing turnover margin in an unsustainable manner.

Evidence suggests the 49ers excelled in this area because they made safe decisions on offense and forced bad ones on defense. That was my feel in watching them play last season. That's also what charting information from KC Joyner indicated. By his accounting, the 49ers forced their opponents into bad decisions -- those leading to turnovers or near turnovers -- on 3.8 percent of plays, the third-highest rate in the league. Those bad decisions led to 10 of the team's 23 interceptions, which also ranked third.

The 49ers also proved proficient in the basics: avoiding blocks and making tackles. By Joyner's metrics, the 49ers' opponents effectively blocked running plays only 36.9 percent of the time, a league low. And when opponents did get good blocking, they averaged only 6.0 yards per attempt, another league low.

San Francisco allowed an NFL-best 77.3 yards rushing per game in part by dominating in short-yardage situations and allowing only 15 rushes of 10-plus yards, fewest in the league.

A pivotal question this season is whether the defense can fare nearly as well against a stronger group of quarterbacks. The 49ers allowed 422.5 yards per game last season when facing Michael Vick, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Tony Romo, up from 270.1 yards per game against all other quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Jay Cutler join Manning and Stafford on the schedule this season.

Continuity one key

49ers' Starting Defense

Every defensive starter from last season returns in 2012. (Aldon Smith, second to Denver's Miller in defensive rookie balloting after collecting 14 sacks, is expected to replace Parys Haralson in the starting lineup this season.)

The defensive system remains in place. No key defenders are returning from significant injuries. Every level of the defense features Pro Bowl players in leadership roles.

The 49ers could not ask for a much more favorable scenario if Goldson, the unsigned franchise player, reports for training camp. (Failing to do so would cost him in the wallet.)

Being good isn't good enough for Whitner.

"We can go out there and put some performances on film and really get noticed around the league as a dominant defensive football team like the Pittsburgh Steelers each and every year, like the Baltimore Ravens each and every year," he said. "When teams look at the San Francisco 49ers, we want them to say that team is being led by their defense and you know each and every time you take the field with them, it’s going to be a physical football game, and it’s going to be stingy defense, and it’s going to be hard to move the football. That’s our goal."