San Francisco 49ers Defense Healthy and NFC Championship Bound

Football is a game of inches. Just ask Dre Greenlaw, the San Francisco 49ers breakout rookie linebacker. 

On the final play of the regular season, with the 49ers taking on their divisional foe Seattle Seahawks, Greenlaw made a season-changing play. His tackle of Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister at the one-yard-line, prevented Seattle from getting a touchdown. It would secure the 49ers the NFC West Division title and the overall number one seed in the conference. 

The last play of the game does not always carry this much significance. But Greenlaw’s division-clinching tackle gave the 49ers an extra week to prepare for the playoffs. For the Niners defense that has struggled with injuries all season long, an extra week off was critical to solidify the unit’s health. 

It paid off for the NFC’s top-ranked team Saturday afternoon in Santa Clara. In front of their raucous fan base, the 49ers put an exclamation point on a dominant 27-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. A team that upset the New Orleans Saints on the road in the Wildcard round, thanks to the 49ers’ Week 17 win. 

If the Niner defense wasn’t appreciated before, it certainly is now. The 49ers defensive squad is physical, stingy and fast. They take away a team’s strengths and do this for an entire game. With Robert Saleh as defensive coordinator, the 49ers are in the driver’s seat to be the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. 

San Francisco 49ers Defense Leads Way in Playoff Win

Richard Sherman Emerges for 49ers Defense

From the first possession of the game, the Niners defense put their game plan into action. It limited Dalvin Cook to modest gains. And dropped back into coverage to force a Kirk Cousins incomplete pass. 

Every play the Vikings had to earn. Every run or completed pass for the Vikings was met with ferocity and hard tackling. It is the fabric of the 49ers defense, built around toughness and grit. 

Richard Sherman exemplifies the 49ers’ tenacious identity. He brings a wealth of playoff experience as one of the pivotal members of the Seattle Seahawks “Legion of Boom” defense. His 35 career interceptions lead all NFL cornerbacks in the 2010s decade, demonstrating prolonged secondary dominance. 

Although not as dominant as he once was, Sherman is still a threat. For the 49ers, he brings intelligence and intensity to the secondary. He is still a feared target because of his speed and great hands. 

When Cousins decided to throw in Sherman’s direction in the second half, he would soon regret the decision. After coming back from a hamstring injury, the 6’3 corner would record his first postseason interception since 2015 with the Seahawks. This would enable an eight-play touchdown drive for the 49ers, extending their lead in the game. 

“It’s odd. It’s like people got frustrated that I was so confident early on in my career, so people wanted me to fail,” said Sherman in a post game press conference. “So when I didn’t fail it’s like, how can we tear him down another way? How do we find a way to tear him down? How do we find a way to rip his game apart? Because I’m too consistent on a year-in, year-out basis.”

The San Francisco 49ers Defensive Line Is Back and Healthy

It was not just Sherman forcing a turnover that made the Niners defense shine. After averaging 26 points per game as a defensive unit in the last five games, the interior defense needed a bounce-back game. Fully healthy, they got one against the Minnesota Vikings. 

The 49ers defense contained Vikings running back Dalvin Cook to just 18 yards rushing, after averaging 81.8 yards per game in the regular season. And they were able to have success moving past the offensive line to sack Cousins six times. 

Nick Bosa was the leader on the Niners defensive line. As a rookie playing in his first playoff game, it did not appear to phase the young defensive end. His six tackles and two sacks were critical in the 49ers’ strategy to stop the run and force Cousins to throw the football. 

Bosa, along with Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas generated 14 of the team’s 49 tackles. Seven of the last 11 drives for the Vikings would result in three-and-outs. All thanks to the 49ers agility and physicality on the defensive side of the ball.

“We knew they were going to attack us with the run game.” said 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner for a piece on Sports Illustrated. ” We knew they were going to try us early. We had to shut it down early to make it the game we wanted to make it.”

Don’t Sleep on These 49ers

The 49ers displayed a smashmouth brand of defensive football against the Vikings. It also featured sound defensive adjustments, evidenced by Seleh’s decision to sub in Emmanuel Moseley into the cornerback position. The Vikings would achieve just one first down with Moseley in the game. 

As the 49ers prepare for their 16th NFC Championship Game, their path may not have been possible without that Greenlaw tackle. If the 49ers lost to the Seahawks at the end of the regular season, they would have been on the road for the entire playoffs. 

A little bit of luck is always necessary for championship teams. The 49ers will take it, along with their dominant defense, with a chance to add to their Super Bowl history. 

Main Photo:
Embed from Getty Images

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