When the San Francisco 49ers dial up a blitz, it's usually on an important play.
In fact, the 49ers defense that's third in the NFL in opponents' scoring (16.4 ppg) and fifth in total defense sends extra pressure just over 20 percent of the time. The league average is nearly 32 percent.
It doesn't need to. The front four held down by Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks is one of the best in the league at pressuring the quarterback. The numbers might not bear that out this season - they are sacking QBs 6.54 percent of their drop backs, No. 21 in the league - but that traces back to Aldon Smith's five-week absence. That number will improve with Smith back and Brooks having the best year of his career.
Even with Smith's absence, the 49ers are fifth in the NFL in pass defense, allowing just 208.5 yards per game.
"When you have four guys out there and their rushing like there's six or seven guys, there's no reason to bring other guys," safety Donte Whitner said. "You can leave them in coverage, you can do other things. You can double guys, you can triple guys. You can roll coverages certain ways when you can get pressure with four. And that's every defensive coaches dream is to get pressure with three or four. If you can do that you can win a lot of football games."
Timing their blitzes carefully will be key Sunday against the Seahawks and Russell Wilson, who has quickly become one of the league's best quarterbacks against the blitz and under pressure.
"Whether they're blitzing or not blitzing, he's a dynamic player that can throw from the pocket very effectively with timing," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Friday.
"He can beat blitzes. He can also evade and escape and extend plays as good as anyone has ever played."
Wilson has rounded into an MVP candidate in just his second pro season. Despite his diminutive frame, he's played at an elite level along side the familiar names of Manning, Brady and Brees.
Wilson is third in the NFL with a 108.5 passer rating that's even better when he faces the blitz. His ability to escape the pocket and make defenses pay for making the field lopsided is far beyond his years, and it figures to only get better.
That's why staying in their lanes and not leaving space for uncovered receivers will be key if San Francisco wants to prevent the Seahawks from clinching the NFC West on their home field Sunday.
"Even when he gets out of the pocket, he's not looking to run first, he's looking to throw it," Whitner said. "When he is throwing it, it's very accurate."
This season Wilson has been pressured 45.2 percent of the time, the second-highest among starting quarterbacks. That could be a product of missing starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini at the same time for a few weeks this season. But it hasn't hindered Russell's performance.
Against the blitz, Wilson completes 63 percent of his passes and has a 109.6 quarterback rating. He's only scrambled 13 times, proving he knows how to locate the open receiver when defenses send an extra man.
On Monday against the Saints, Wilson completed all eight of his throws for 122 yards against the blitz notching two of his three touchdown passes. He had a modest 158.3 rating when Rob Ryan dialed up extra pressure.
In his 13 seasons as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, Vic Fangio has built his schemes based on his personnel. In stops with the Panthers, Colts and Texans, he was more apt to blitz because his front seven wasn't nearly as talented as the group he presides over with the 49ers.
With Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman plugging gaps in the running game, the 49ers don't always need an eighth or ninth man in the box. That allows the back end of the defense to blanket opposing teams' down-field threats. It has contributed heavily to wins over the vaunted passing attacks of Saints, Packers, Lions, Patriots and Falcons over the last two-plus seasons.
"We feel like we've got a system here that best suits our players. In the past, I was known for a lot more pressure and some people thought too much at times," Fangio said.
"I think you always have to look at the players you have as a group more so than individually and do the best for those 11."
Last October when San Francisco beat Seattle 13-6, the 49ers held Wilson in check. It was the worst performance of his young his career, completing just 9 of 23 attempts for 122 yards. Both his completion percentage (39 percent) and yardage are still career-lows.
San Francisco is hoping to contain Wilson to a similar effect Sunday in order to prove to their rival and the rest of the league they can give the NFC's top seed a run for its money in the postseason.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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