Even With Healthy Offense, 49ers Will Only Go as Far as Defense Can Carry Them

Tyson LanglandNFC West Lead WriterDecember 2, 2013

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Despite the San Francisco 49ers' ineffectiveness on third down and in the red zone, head coach Jim Harbaugh’s plan of simplifying things on the offensive side of the ball has helped this team come a long way.

After back-to-back losses to the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, the Niners needed quarterback Colin Kaepernick to step up.

The third-year signal-caller out of Nevada silenced critics by putting together one of the best two-game stretches in his career, throwing for 510 yards and four touchdowns while completing 65.2 percent of his passes for a 123 quarterback rating.

There’s no question that Kaepernick’s decision-making skills have gotten better amid the team’s winning streak. However, the offense is still far away from where it needs to be, and it starts on third down. 

With four games left to play, Greg Roman’s offense is converting 37 percent of its third-down attempts. By no means is that the worst percentage in the league, but things have gotten worse for the 49ers on third down during their two-game winning streak.

Against the Washington Redskins, they were 4-of-14 on third down. Versus the St. Louis Rams, they were 4-of-12. This means Kaepernick and Co. have converted 31 percent of their third-down attempts since Week 12.

The good news is that San Francisco got away with a low conversion rate because it didn’t lose the turnover battle and out-possessed the opposition. Additionally, the 49ers had no business losing either game based on the level of competition. 

When you sport one of the best defenses in the NFL on an annual basis, you can mask some of your team’s shortcomings on offense.

Yes, San Francisco’s offense will only continue to get better once wide receiver Michael Crabtree finds his rhythm, but until then it appears as if the 49ers will only go as far as their defense takes them.

That’s not a bad thing.

Ever since Harbaugh and his staff came along in 2011, the defense has outpaced the offense. When Kaepernick was inserted into the lineup last year, Roman’s unit closed the gap. Yet, we all know who sets the tone for this team.

Despite injuries to the secondary and defensive line, one could make the case that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense has never performed better under his watch. Through 12 games, the unit is surrendering 16.4 points and 311.7 yards per game along with a third-down conversion rate of 34 percent.

To put those numbers in perspective, Fangio’s defense allowed 14.3 points per game in 2011 and 17.1 in 2012. In terms of yards per game, San Francisco allowed 308.2 in 2011 and 294.4 in 2012.

The third-down conversion rate was close as well. Opposing offenses converted third downs into first downs 35 percent of the time in 2011, and 33 percent of the time in 2012.

Sure, there were a couple of statistical categories that fall short in comparison to the Niners' previous seasons under Fangio, but overall the numbers are surprisingly close.

Additionally, enough can’t be said about how good the pass rush was without outside linebacker Aldon Smith for a majority of the season.

At the conclusion of Sunday’s win over the Rams, the 49ers had 30 sacks to their name. This means they are on pace for 40 sacks on the season. No, that wouldn’t be a three-year best, but the distribution of sacks may end up being more spread out than it ever has been before.

Linebacker Ahmad Brooks has had a breakout year with 8.5 sacks, while defensive linemen Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey have combined for nine of their own.

The defense has been forced to play as a more cohesive unit.

In years past, three or four players would steal the headlines. This year, all 11 players have to show up and execute the game plan to secure a win. At 8-4, the 49ers may not be garnering the type of national attention they are used to, but that’s fine.

Sometimes injuries and younger players being thrust into action helps a team build unity. And with upcoming games against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco will need all of its defensive players to play as one.

The Seahawks and Cardinals are both effective when they throw the ball, so the 49ers will need their pass-rushers (Brooks and Smith) to bring their A-games. Meanwhile, defensive backs Tramaine Brock and Eric Reid need to lock down the back end of the defense.

Youth may have hurt San Francisco’s defense early on in the season, but things are coming together at the right time.

Even though the 49ers are flying under the radar, this may turn out to be their best season since Harbaugh took over, thanks in large part to the way Fangio’s defense has played.