The San Francisco 49ers' stout defense has been consistent in nearly every facet in 2013. It ranks third in both points (16.3) and yards allowed (301.1).
But there's one area the team is working to improve as the regular season winds down and the playoffs approach: defending the hurry-up offense.
In Sunday's 33-14 win, Tampa Bay's two scoring drives featured a high volume of up-tempo plays that didn't allow the 49ers to adjust personnel or be as elaborate in their coverage schemes as they would like.
On those two drives - one to end the first half and the other late in the third quarter - rookie quarterback Mike Glennon completed 13 of 15 passes for 145 yards and a pair of scores. On his other 10 possessions, Glennon combined for just 34 passing yards on five completions.
"It's harder to communicate," safety Donte Whitner said about facing the no-huddle. "You have to be a lot more basic because everybody can't get the call and they're ready to snap the football. A defensive coordinator can't get a look at the formation or anything. The guys on the sideline have to signal it in and can't really call it in to Patrick (Willis). So it's tougher when guys are hurrying up."
San Francisco hasn't been challenged by much hurry-up this season outside of two-minute situations. NaVorro Bowman spoke earlier this week about being surprised the Bucs elected to go that route.
"Usually when we're prepared for them and we know teams like to do it we're alright with it," Bowman said. "We didn't think that they would do it, but they did it and we just have to continue to adjust and continue to play the game."
Late in the regular season and during the playoffs last year, offenses attacked the 49ers by going without a huddle and had success. The Patriots nearly came back from a late 28-point deficit in Week 15 going uptempo almost exclusively. And the Falcons offense got off to a hot start in the NFC title game using it and jetted out to a 17-0 lead early.
Over San Francisco's final six games of 2012, including the playoffs and Super Bowl, teams averaged over 30 points a game. Over the team's last 11 games this year, the 49ers are holding opponents to 13.
The obvious difference is health. In that game in New England, Justin Smith suffered a torn triceps muscle in his left arm. Aldon Smith was listed on the injury report for the final nine games of the year and required surgery to repair his labrum in the offseason. The duo didn't register a sack over those final six games.
Now, both Smiths are healthy and the 49ers have helped them out by rotating more players in along the defensive front. Aldon Smith's five-game absence certainly won't hurt him physically in the long run, either.
With the Falcons coming to San Francisco this week to play on Monday night, the 49ers could see some no-huddle from Matt Ryan and company.
"That was a big emphasis this week because we gave up two scoring drives when they hurried it up. So we got to be ready for that," Ray McDonald said.
The question becomes, how does a defense slow down the pace?
"You only have a set number of calls that you can run in situations," Whitner said. "Just line up, communicate and make a couple of plays to make them go away from the hurry up. Once you stop it early, they'll stop it. If you have trouble with it, they'll continue that."
NOTES: Left guard Mike Iupati said he's uncertain if he will play Monday night and could miss his sixth-straight game after spraining his MCL Nov. 17 against New Orleans...If the Cardinals win in Seattle on Sunday, the 49ers would clinch a playoff berth. But Jim Harbaugh said that would not change his approach leading into the game...Wide receiver Mario Manningham is also listed as questionable while dealing with a knee injury and illness...Vance McDonald (ankle) and Dan Skuta (foot) are also questionable. McDonald was inactive for the first time as a pro last week against the Buccaneers.
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