49ers’ defense has been good but is chasing greatness and Dallas can help it get there
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In 2023, the 49ers had no intention of chasing defense excellence.
Aside from winning a sixth Super Bowl, the 49ers want to be great on defense. While the defense has been an upper-echelon unit that has held up its end of the bargain in a 4-0 start, improving in that area would go a long way toward keeping the 49ers on track with the Dallas Cowboys visiting on Sunday night.
“We know how good we are,” Deommodore Lenoir, a cornerback, said on Wednesday. “But we know what we’re trying to get to.”
Depending on how things play out, the 49ers may need to be outstanding on defense to defeat Dallas. The 49ers are well aware that the Cowboys allow the fewest points per game in the NFL, at 10.3, while the 49ers are tied for third at 14.5. Or that Dallas is ranked second in yards allowed, with the 49ers ranking fifth.
The Cowboys have the most takeaways in the NFL with nine. The San Francisco 49ers have five. Dallas has 14 sacks to the 49ers’ nine.
Of course, the defenses do not play each other. Consider this: in 11 games started and finished by Brock Purdy, the 49ers have been held to fewer than 20 points only once. Dallas was the only team to do it, holding the 49ers to four field goals and a single touchdown in a 19-12 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs.
So, with a record of 3-1, Dallas could be the first team to contain the 49ers’ offense.
That would put the onus on the 49ers’ defense to play at a higher level in order to achieve a similar result. When you have a team as good as the 49ers, nitpicking is not only acceptable, but encouraged, and there are a few red flags to watch out for in the future.
“I think we’ve had some weak moments,” said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. “But they’re still playing real good football, I’m real happy with them, and we’re in Week 4 here, but we’re never satisfied.”
While the word “weak” may sound a little strong, it’s clear that the 49ers haven’t faced any offensive juggernauts to begin the season.
The 49ers took control early in the season opener against Pittsburgh, starting with five consecutive three-and-outs. Then, just before halftime, they gave up a 95-yard, 12-play drive in 1:25, en route to a 30-7 victory.
In Week 2 against the Rams, quarterback Matthew Stafford put the 49ers on their heels with a quick rhythm passing game, accumulating 16 first downs and completing 14-of-18 passes for 143 yards. Puka Nacua, a rookie wide receiver (15 receptions, 147 yards), was a game-long mystery. Regardless, the 49ers won 30-23.
The 49ers sat on the New York Giants in their Week 3 home opener, a team that is missing starting running back Saquon Barkley and has the NFL’s 31st-ranked offense.
The 49ers did enough to win last week against Arizona, but there were some issues that coordinator Steve Wilks and his team will be scrutinizing after a 35-16 victory. The Cardinals offense stayed on the field far too often, converting eight of fifteen third downs and averaging 5.4 yards per snap, while the 49ers forced no turnovers and only one sack.
In a similar vein to Pittsburgh, the 49ers allowed a 99-yard touchdown drive. No defense as strong as the 49ers’ should allow 95- and 99-yard drives over the course of a season, let alone four games.
“It’s one thing to look at the stats and numbers, but we’re really focused on looking at the film and the tape and figuring out where we can improve,” the slot corner said. “We’ve played some good games for sure, but when we go back and watch there’s a lot of stuff that jumps out that we can do better.”
The 49ers have nine sacks, which is average, but they are tied for second in pressures with 49. Defensive end Nick Bosa, who has just one sack in four games after signing a five-year, $170 million contract, is confident those numbers will improve.
‘In the last three games, we’ve had some really good defensive line performances,’ said Bosa. “I think if we just keep building off that they’re going to come.”
The 49ers intercepted Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott twice in last year’s playoff win, once by Warner and once by Lenoir. The previous year, K’Waun Williams intercepted Prescott in the wild-card game.
Great defenses not only take the ball away, but they also score. The 49ers have only five turnovers and have yet to score on defense.
“We’re never satisfied with a win or any type of performance,” Warner told reporters. “The first thing is always to win, and the ball is everything.” It’s a big point of emphasis when we don’t take that away.”
The 49ers defense has taken a back seat to an offense that has scored 30, 30, 30, and 35 points in four games, led by Christian McCaffrey and with Purdy in charge.
Beating Dallas could put the defense back on top in the only game of the night, with nearly everyone in the NFL tuning in.
“I’m really pumped,” Lenoir said. “I’ve been looking forward to this game. “I’m ready to get this started.”
However, if the 49ers are only good on defense, it may not be enough.