Niners defense comes back from the dead

Mike Nolan had to know what everybody was thinking as the shadows fell on Monster Park late Sunday afternoon and the Minnesota Vikings took one last crack at the improbable defensive masterpiece the 49ers had molded before an astonished sellout crowd. So, with the Vikes driving in San Francisco territory at the two-minute warning, Nolan called his defensive crew over for a little sideline chat.

The message was as simple as it was loud and clear.

"I told them that Minnesota can take this game right down to the very last and hope to score a touchdown and beat us 10-9," Nolan said. "I told them, ‘It's on you right now.' I wasn't going to call any timeouts or sub in any packages. I said, ‘It's up to you guys now to win the game.' " The 49ers, relying on defense to win a game? Now, there's a new one.

But it happened, and it was real. Very real.

On a day the 49ers produced a paltry 133 yards of total offense, that defense was marvelous throughout the afternoon - particularly in crunch time and on consequential downs - and it came through one final time when it counted.

The Vikings had a first down and stood 30 yards from the San Francisco end zone when play resumed after the two-minute warning, and it appeared a defense that had been so tough and resilient throughout the afternoon was finally tiring and about to fade. That defense had been on the field 34 minutes already, and it almost seemed too much to ask for them to stop Minnesota one final time.

Nolan asked anyway. And his defense responded just as it had done all day, stoning the Vikings on the next four downs to preserve a 9-3 victory that looked very little like anything the 49ers had produced since Nolan took over as San Francisco's head coach 22 months ago.

On defense, that is.

"It means a tremendous amount," said Nolan, finally getting to talk nice about a beleaguered San Francisco defense that had been thrashed several times already this season and many other times since he took control of the team. "Because, as we stress all the time, you have to believe in what you're doing and we have to continue to work hard to get better and better. And the only way you're going to cure that is by having some success. Certainly, that was a big shot in the arm for those (defensive) guys. They have to believe now, because Minnesota is a good football team."

And against that good Minnesota team, a defense ranked 31st in the the NFL kept the 49ers in the game the entire afternoon, then put away the satisfying victory in slam-dunk fashion at the finish.

And you had to see it to believe it.

The 49ers limited Minnesota to 238 yards of total offense and one measly 21-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell. Let those numbers sink in for a moment.

How improbable was it? Before running into the Vikings, the 49ers were allowing 33.6 points per game and were on a record pace to allow more points in a season than any team in NFL history. They hadn't held an opponent to single-digit scoring since early in the 2003 season. Their streak of allowing 10 or more points in 48 consecutive games was the longest in the NFL.

They'd just allowed 41 points to the Chicago Bears last week - all those points coming before halftime - and 48 to the San Diego Chargers in the game before that.

But those string of ugly numbers came to a finish in sudden and stunning fashion against the Vikings, who aren't exactly slouches on offense.

"Our guys just had an attitude today," said linebacker Brandon Moore, who produced the game of his life with a game-high 14 tackles, one sack and three hits on Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson. "We started up front and it continued in the back end. We played on their side of the line of scrimmage. We played downhill and we hit them in the mouth all day."

And kept punching to the end. After driving down the field on a game-opening 16-play, 69-yard drive that produced Longwell's field goal, the Vikings never got past the San Francisco 27-yard line the rest of the afternoon.

"It's not like we're a bunch of schmucks out there," said linebacker Derek Smith, San Francisco's leading tackler each of the past five seasons, who shrugged off his eye problems to get in on some plays. "It was just a matter of going out there and doing the things we were coached to do, playing defense like we're supposed to play it."

Surprising? Mind-boggling? Yes … and yes. The 49ers shut down the Vikings despite going back to the basics on defense after getting trounced repeatedly this season on that side of the ball.

‘We stayed in really two packages the entire day," Nolan said. "We played base and we played sub. It was pretty basic. That's all we really did."

The 49ers made a few changes, starting Moore in place of regular starter Jeff Ulbrich at right inside linebacker, and that had a dramatic effect. Moore was all over the field, and so were several of his other defensive comrades.

Defensive linemen Marques Douglas and Bryant Young each blindsided Johnson for sacks that produced fumbles recovered by the 49ers. Cornerback Walt Harris recorded his fourth interception of the season on a pass tipped by teammate Sammy Davis. Mark Roman swooped over from safety to tip away Minnesota's final pass at the goal line. Manny Lawson and Shawntae Spencer each recovered fumbles and combined for 14 tackles.

Even defenders such as Spencer, Smith, Tony Parrish and Mike Adams - each of whom had been struggling of late - got into the act.

"They were in a bend-not-break mold," Johnson said. "They were giving us a lot of soft coverages. They didn't want to get beat deep and they didn't. They backed it down from what they had been doing. They kept things plain vanilla. They put themselves in positions to make plays. They were very conscious of not giving up anything deep."

That about covers it. The 49ers did a superb job of bending but not breaking after Minnesota's game-opening drive that burned nine minutes off the clock. The Vikings' next eight drives ended with a turnover or a Chris Kluwe punt.

"We just kind of got fed up with how things have been going for us lately," said Young, the four-time All-Pro and defensive leader "We could hope all we want, but when you hope you got to go out there and make something happen and fight to make it happen. Guys are finally starting to understand that. In this league, you have to be mentally tough, and I think today guys kind of understood what that really means."

While the offense wasn't helping much, the defense got plenty of support from kicker Joe Nedney, who made field goals of 25, 30 and 51 yards - making his 51-yarder twice after the play was called dead the first time he drilled it, forcing a re-kick. Nedney also took away a possession from Minnesota when he hit a another perfect onside kick that was recovered by San Francisco's Bryan Gilmore.

"When you can get a win like this, it says a lot about all three phases of your team," Nedney said.

But mostly, this win said something about San Francisco's defense. Finally, it is back from the dead.

"I'll take 9-3 any day," Nolan said.

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