Revamped defense finally biting back

The 49ers aren't getting too excited about it just quite yet. But that will change Sunday if their beleaguered defense continues its recent surge against the NFL's top-ranked offense.

Over the past three weeks, while its wretched offense has continued to struggle mightily, San Francisco's defense has gone from awful to respectable, even giving a few appearances during last week's game in Chicago that it possibly might be ready to take the next step beyond that.

But the 49ers can't get ahead of themselves in that regard. Not with the Seattle Seahawks coming to town.

After a hideous start that quickly sank the team to rock bottom of the NFL rankings in yards and points allowed, San Francisco's defense has put together three consecutive quality performances that have kept the Niners – with their offensive output consisting of nothing more than Joe Nedney field goals – close in ever game they have played during that span.

That's a trend of which people really will start taking notice if the 49ers can continue it against the Seahawks, who are running away with the NFC West behind an offense that leads the NFL in five categories and is in the top 10 in five others.

"They've come a good ways," coach Mike Nolan said Thursday about his defense, which was the league laughingstock just a month ago. "This will be our biggest challenge, though. This will be a big test. Seattle is very good. They do a lot of different things with a lot of people, and they have experienced people in the positions doing them. I'm curious to see how it goes."

So is everybody else who's wondering if the past three weeks have just been a tease by a defense that was trampled on a weekly basis during the first six games of the season.

But the 49ers deserve some credit where credit is due, and how often has anybody heard that around this team this season? The defense has, both on paper and on the field, made a significant turnaround since it allowed 448 yards during a 52-17 thrashing at Washington on Oct. 23.

That was the fifth time in the 49ers' first six games that they allowed 400 yards or more and the fourth time they allowed 443 or more, including an outrageous 583-yard trampling by Philadelphia in Week 2. The 49ers slumped home from the Washington game allowing NFL-worst totals of 452.7 yards and 35.3 points per game.

Ouch.

"Nobody wants to get embarrassed like that," nose tackle Anthony Adams said. "We all learned from those games we lost. We didn't want to make those mistakes twice. I think we're all just trusting each other a little better now. It's been a little bit of everything. We know each other better now, know the system better and are keying on what we need to do. Everybody's position is defined now."

The 49ers have made some personnel changes and the team finally is beginning to adjust to the new schemes being implemented by a new coaching staff. The 49ers switched from a 4-3 system to a 3-4 set this year under Nolan and defensive coordinator Billy Davis, and it took some time to make the pieces fit and allow players to absorb the philosophy and intricacies of a new defense.

But now it finally appears to be happening. The defense, which has four different starters from its opening-day lineup, has allowed an average of 286 yards and 17 points the past three weeks against three NFC divisional leaders.

"There's a lot of things that are going into the defense getting better and better each week and understanding the details of the defense better, and (players) having continuity with who they're playing with," Davis said. "I think these young guys are buying into how we're teaching them to prepare. That's the other thing we're excited about."

The 49ers will have another new youngster in the lineup Sunday when rookie Ben Emanuel takes over at strong safety for veteran Tony Parrish, whose string of 121 consecutive regular-season starts will come to an end. Parrish was injured in last week's game at Chicago and underwent surgery Thursday to repair a fractured left fibula.

Parrish was the undisputed leader of San Francisco's secondary, leading the NFL in total interceptions since 2001 over most of the past three seasons, but the 49ers have become accustomed this year to picking up the slack with young players in their defensive backfield.

Cornerback Ahmed Plummer and safety Mike Rumph – San Francisco's first-round draft picks in 2000 and 2002 – each haven't played since September because of injuries. In their place, unheralded second-year players Bruce Thornton and Mike Adams have come in and the pass coverage has improved.

Emanuel will join that group this week for his first NFL start at safety. Thornton and Emanuel each were released by other teams earlier this season.

"I'm pleased with the progress they've made, and they weren't even here earlier in the year to be a part of some of those other games that weren't very good," Nolan said. "So we upgraded, I guess you could say."

The 49ers allowed just 67 yards passing last week in windy conditions at Chicago, and the 239 total yards gained by the Bears were the fewest allowed by San Francisco's defense since November of last season.

If the 49ers can approach those kinds of results again against the explosive Seattle offense, it will indicate their revamped defense truly is on to something.

"It's a chance for our defense to show that we're no fluke, that we can hang with the best," Emanuel said. "It's definitely a tough challenge that we accept with open arms. It will be good for us to go out there and show everybody what's up."

And, as they finally get a taste of success after a rough start, that overhauled defense is beginning to develop just a little bit of swagger. They may be young and certainly are unproven, but there's no fear in San Francisco defenders with perhaps their top offensive challenge of the season up next.

"Obviously, we're inexperienced," Adams said. "But if (the Seahawks) don't come to play, we're going to punch them in the mouth."


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