Big test on big stage for rising pass defense

Everybody knows the 49ers can stop the run. But it's been a different story so far this season when they go up against a Pro Bowl passer. Tony Romo and Michael Vick shredded San Francisco through the air in the Niners' two closest games this season, and with Eli Manning coming to town this week, the back end of the NFL's No. 1 rushing defense will get another test against a top-shelf quarterback.

The 49ers didn't pass the test against Romo in Week 2. Romo and Jon Kitna combined for 432 yards passing on San Francisco's home field – 345 of them by Romo – as the Cowboys rallied behind Romo from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to hand the Niners their only defeat of the season, 27-24 in overtime.

The 49ers didn't pass the test against Vick in Week 4. The athletic lefty passed for a career-high 416 yards and two touchdowns, leading the charge as the Eagles opened a 20-point lead in the third quarter.

But San Francisco somehow managed to hold Philadelphia to just three second-half points to emerge with a dramatic one-point victory, an outcome that has propelled the 49ers to a 7-1 start and five-game lead in the NFC West at midseason.

Now comes the Manning test, and it could prove to be the most difficult yet. The third Pro Bowl quarterback to face the 49ers this season, Manning has the New York Giants out to a 6-2 start and a two-game lead over Romo's Cowboys in the NFC East.

Manning comes to San Francisco on a three-game winning streak after delivering his fourth fourth-quarter comeback victory of the season last week, a down-to-the-final-seconds 24-20 win on the road at New England.

But the 49ers feel they're better prepared for this passing exam than they were for others during the first month of the season. And with Manning in a groove, they'd better be.

"I believe we're a lot better now," Niners strong safety Donte Whitner said Friday.

"When you go back and look at those games," Whitner continued, "you've got silly things that we gave up which became big plays. We had corners falling down, took the wrong angle in a Cover 2, had some communication issues. We look at them now as small mistakes that can cost you big in big football games against good quarterbacks. We don't foresee that happening anymore."

It hasn't happened much since the Philadelphia game. The 49ers have displayed marked improvement against the pass since then, making a defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL against the run even stronger.

The 49ers rank 22nd in the league in pass defense, but they have allowed an average of only 245.5 yards through the air since playing the Eagles.

And that's against teams that have been forced to pass out of necessity because they ran into a wall of 49ers when trying to run. San Francisco's rugged rush defense has gotten tougher and tougher by the week, allowing an average of just 61.3 yards on the ground in its last three games and leaving opponents few alternatives but to test the Niners on the back end.

"A lot of teams have abandoned the run on us and went to an aerial attack," Whitner said. "When it comes down to crunch time and getting in the playoffs and playing these other top teams in the NFC, you have to stop elite quarterbacks to get where we want to go.

"We're really honed in on what Eli and those guys like to do on offense. The game plan is in now. Now we have to go out and execute. This is just another step to show that we've made a lot of improvement and can go make plays on the football. We can't allow them to run through our defense unhindered and we have to show that. We have to show that were ready to play prime-time and big-time football."

The 49ers have played much better pass defense since getting things settled in their secondary in October. The improvement began with the return of free safety Dashon Goldson, who missed the first two games of the season – including the Dallas debacle – with a knee injury.

Goldson is the only member of San Francisco's starting secondary to start a game for the 49ers last season. Whitner and left cornerback Carlos Rogers joined the team in August as free agents, and holdover veteran Tarell Brown won the starting job at right cornerback during the summer.

It took a while for that unit to jell and learn to work together. But now it is regularly making plays like the rest of San Francisco's opportunistic defense.

"Week-in, week-out, we've improved every week," Goldson said. "Not to take anything away from (earlier opponents), but we had a lot of mental breakdowns in the secondary back then, and we left some things out there as far as secondary coverage and breakdowns and reads and who had who, and it cost us big-time. It was early season, and you always get those things at the beginning of the season.

"But we've tuned things up and we see a lot of things week in and week out, and now we're just playing of each other's strengths."

Goldson has given the secondary a lift with his menacing presence as a brutal hitter who can make plays on the ball. Goldson was more physical than Washington tight end Fred Davis last week while going for the football to record his second interception in as many weeks.

Goldson has typified the play of a hands-on pass defense that has recorded 10 interceptions and leads the NFL with 60 passes defensed, a team record through eight games.

But that defense will need to be in top form and on high alert this week against Manning, the league's fifth-ranked passer.

"He's a quarterback that's been there, that's played at the highest stages, that has a lot of experience and has played in a lot of big games," Goldson said. "They have a good quarterback and good wide receiver corps and it's going to be another challenge and an opportunity for us to show what we can do. I think we're up for the challenge."

San Francisco's second-level defenders have been up for the challenge all season. Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are among the NFL's leading tacklers, but they also play on passing downs and have been strong in underneath coverage against tight ends and running backs.

They could have their hands full this week with New York tight end Jake Ballard, who is averaging 17.2 yards per reception and caught the winning touchdown pass from Manning in the final seconds last week.

"We're going to have to do a great job covering the tight ends," Bowman said. "It's going to be a great game with some great matchups. You have to respect every aspect that they can do some damage in. It's a game where we're going to have to be prepared for anything."

Bowman has noticed the improvement in both preparation and coverage by the secondary behind him.

"It's those guys just being honest now," Bowman said. "Everybody wants to get there in the box and make a play against the run. But we've been having success with a seven-man box and giving our secondary a chance just to play the pass and focus on that. Those guys have just been doing a great job of recognizing the pass and defending it. With us playing a Pro Bowl quarterback this week, I think they'll be focusing more on that than trying to stop the run."

A more cohesive and focused secondary has prompted defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to feel as good these days about his pass defense as he does about his relentless rushing defense.

"Overall, we've played the pass very well," Fangio said. "Since we have the second-best record in the league, I'd say it's the second-best pass defense in the league."

But first thing's first: An opportunity on a big stage against a big-time QB to show just how far that pass defense really has come.

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