One of the more signature things about the 49ers offseason was the revealing of their very challenging schedule. San Francisco will be facing a number of elite quarterbacks in 2012 and dynamic passing attacks.
The 49ers defense will be up against high-flying passing offenses led by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady - they will also be tested against more complete offenses like Jay Cutler's Bears, Matthew Stafford's Lions and Eli Manning's Giants.
So with such good competition in their near future, we're left wondering how the 49ers defense will match up against such potent offenses in 2012. One of the best ways to diagnose where the 49ers defense will be in 2012 is to examine where they left off in 2011.
Looking at San Francisco's toughest offensive competition late in the season, the 49ers were faced with Drew Brees who was coming off one of the best seasons for a quarterback in league history. The week before the game at Candlestick, Brees went 33 of 43 for 466 yards, with 3 touchdowns and zero interceptions against the Detroit Lions. The Saints quarterback finished with a 76.7 completion percentage and a 134.4 rating as he led his team to a 45-28 victory.
Brees was no doubt the hottest quarterback in the league entering the postseason, so the 49ers were going to have their hands filled. And not only was Brees on fire, but the Saints had the NFL's No. 6 running game to complement their record-setting pass attack.
On the first offensive play of the game, Brees went to Darren Sproles for a gain of 5; safety Donte Whitner coming in with support. Though, it was already clear the 49ers were going to be getting pressure, and Brees would have to get the ball out quickly.
The Saints were going with Sproles, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas - a running back by committee that was ineffective against San Francisco. Brees had to get rid of the ball as he was under pressure by Aldon Smith, dropping it down to Sproles. The miniature tailback put a move on NaVorro Bowman and got by for a first down.
There were a lot of quick release passes by Brees, establishing a fast tempo on offense while trying to keep a balance. The middle was strong with Isaac Sopoaga, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, forcing things outside and making plays in backfield.
On a 3rd and 5, tight end Jimmy Graham was running up the right sideline, where Whitner got a pass interference call which gave the Saints the ball downfield at the spot of the foul and a fresh set of downs in 49ers red zone.
On 2nd and 4, Brees went short to Devery Henderson, and the ball went in and out of the hands of Carlos Rogers who broke on the route. Dashon Goldson came up to make tackle on Sproles behind the line of scrimmage. The run support from the secondary was stellar, showing that it was a total team effort.
From the SF 7, Brees escaped Aldon Smith, throwing on the run to Pierre Thomas. Thomas turned up field and took a crushing shoulder from Whitner who not only stopped Thomas short of the first, but forced a fumble that was recovered by Patrick Willis.
San Francisco was not rushing more than four at a time, and good coverage by the 49ers linebackers and secondary led to broken plays. Isaac Sopoaga and NaVorro Bowman broke through to stuff the run and forced New Orleans into a third and long. On 3rd and 8, Aldon Smith came off the right side, beating Jermon Bushrod and sacked Brees for a loss of 11.
Carlos Rogers lined up on the left side of the line, blitzed, and a rush from Justin Smith from the two-point stance got sufficient pressure on Brees to force him to get rid of it short.
After a 7-yard run by Sproles, Brees threw on first down and after seeing pressure again from Rogers coming off the edge, overthrew his receiver downfield and it was intercepted by Dashon Goldson. After stepping in front of the vertical route, Goldson returned it 42 yards to the Saints 3-yard line before he was taken down by Jahri Evans.
At this point, the Saints had no momentum down 17-0. Brees continued to check it down to his backs, connecting with his full back for a gain of 8 and a first down. It seemed like chipping away at the defense was the only way to make strides.
But Brees finally hit Marques Colston for 20-yards and a first down into 49ers territory. Sproles made another short catch from Brees and was hit hard by Whitner. The Niners' secondary was playing tight, disciplined coverage and not allowing anything downfield for Brees.
Graham made a flexible catch off a quick pass to move the chains in the 49ers red zone. However, whenever the Saints wanted to run, they would hit a wall and never break a significant gain. The 49ers defense attacked the football on every down, looking like they were after it each play.
Suddenly, Brees hit Graham for a Saints touchdown. The Saints QB threw it up high over Patrick Willis where only the 6'7" Graham could come down with it.
Brees found his No. 1 receiver in Colston for a gain of 15 and a fresh set of downs. Brees then had maybe 10 seconds in the pocket - and the coverage was so good downfield - it gave a relentless Justin Smith extra time to get after Brees.
A Sproles handoff up the middle was quickly eradicated by Bowman, who was all over the running back. The 49ers were having some consistency getting the Saints in third and long situations. San Francisco was slowing things down, not allowing the Saints to get comfortable and on a roll and making them take their time.
But Brees found a one on one match up he liked between his receiver Colston and Chris Culliver. Brees went over the top to Colston on the right sideline and the ball location was perfect and indefensible - Colston tapped his feet in and crossed the plain for the score.
Aldon Smith and Justin Smith were fierce coming off the right side, applying constant pressure and forcing incompletions. The fact that Brees and the Saints offense continued to show pass was getting Aldon Smith in the game more.
San Francisco got at Brees with some technically sound blitzes that forced him to get rid of it. And with the secondary swarming the receivers and making tackles, the Niners did have their clamps on the Saints passing game.
Before long, Brees fired deep downfield for Devery Henderson who had man-to-man with Tarell Brown. Stride for stride with Henderson, Brown made a play on the ball, leaping over Henderson to make the interception, timing the pass and getting it at the highest point.
The 49ers defense came out with three safeties; Dashon Goldson and Reggie Smith at the free and strong safety positions, and Whitner standing free in the box with the linebackers. Whitner was moving around a lot, even manning up as a corner.
A screen to Sproles didn't fool the 49ers and Aldon Smith recognized the play, taking down Sproles for a loss of 4. Another screen to Sproles on 3rd and 14 was eventually blown up by Patrick Willis and the Saints had to punt again before the half.
The Saints got the ball with 17 seconds left on the clock after Alex Smith fumbled the ball away. On first down, Brees went deep to Henderson - the receiver lost his footing and the pass went incomplete. Justin Smith then bull rushed Jermon Bushrod backward, forcing Brees to step up; the quarterback was chased down and sacked by Ricky Jean-Francois.
On the final offensive play for the Saints before the half, Aldon Smith fired into the Saints backfield like a wild man, forcing Brees to throw it away.
Brees checked it down to Sproles again, who was taken down hard by Bowman. Brees then bootlegged and hit Colston for 31-yards; the effect of a mental error of over-pursuing by Goldson.
Brees under pressure again, getting rid of it, took a hard hit from Aldon Smith who busted through the middle. On 3rd and 8, Justin Smith standing upright in a laid-back runner's stance charged up the middle and wrapped up Brees and buried him - having looped around from a two-point stance.
Brees had all day to throw because the 49ers were content with only 3 or 4 rushers. Plus, they were getting great coverage from their defensive backs, and a lot of plays ended in incompletions that way.
Brees linked up with Henderson for a 19-yard gain and a first down on the quick slant. Graham did present match-up problems for Patrick Willis with his height and agility. Brees took a shot deep down the middle of the field to Arrington and at the last moment, Rogers threw an arm up got a hand on the ball at the point of the catch - a touchdown saving play.
The Niners were playing coverage really tight and continued to get pressure with four guys up front. On 3rd and 10, Brees threw short to Arrington on the quick release but it was broken up by Rogers, who got his hand in there.
The 49ers dropped eight on first down, forcing Brees to check it down to Sproles who was just short of the first before being taken down by Willis.
For the Saints, quick passes and timing routes were the only way the offense could move the ball. Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith were swarming, and with Justin Smith creating a whirlwind of disruption up the middle with his bull rush, it was too much.
An outside run to Ivory was blown up by Ahmad Brooks; Ivory tried to cut it outside but Brooks squared up and drilled him. The stop led to a Saints field goal.
Justin Smith and Parys Haralson were in Brees' face right away, chasing him outside the pocket and forcing him to get rid of it; once again, only bringing four.
On second down, Ahmad Brooks came free on the inside and sacked Brees hard, forcing a 3rd and 17.
On third and very long, Justin Smith bull rushed Jermon Bushrod back and leapt over the top of the tackle, getting his hand inside Brees' jersey and uses his center of gravity to hang from Bushrod and bring them both down.
Brees had nothing deep downfield, and it forced him to throw another underneath route to Sproles for a short gain. An incompletion on second down puts the Saints offense in another third and long. The Saints moved the chains, profiting from a Brees connection to Henderson. Colston then made a grab on the following play for 11-yards and another first down.
Another short catch by Sproles made his twelfth of the day, but it was just short of the first down before he was tackled by Goldson. The 49ers defense was taking away options, causing disruption up front and playing tight coverage all day on them.
But the Saints finally caught a break when Sproles made his thirteenth catch on a short pattern and took it 44-yards for a touchdown.
Brees had Justin Smith all over him immediately as the QB released a pass intended for Colston that was broken up by Tarell Brown. That was shortly followed with a gain of 12 to Colston and a first down, who went out of bounds to stop the clock.
Brees released it deep down the middle of the field to Graham, who caught it for the 66-yard go-ahead touchdown. The 49ers had help in the area, but the play was just busted with no one getting hands on Graham. Willis was faulty in coverage and Whitner went for the pick instead of wrapping Graham up.
Despite the last two drives, this was an absolutely outstanding defensive performance from the San Francisco 49ers. The NFL's record-setting QB Drew Brees threw the ball 60+ times in this game and it wasn't enough. There wasn't a moment during this match up where Brees was comfortable and found his groove; their positive plays were sporadic and often didn't amount to anything.
His four touchdowns were just four indefensible Brees throws, which came from a large sample of 63 attempts. Brees had no help from his running game; though they were good during the season, the unit was totally a non-factor in this game.
San Francisco made the league's best offense one-dimensional. For the majority of the game, the 49ers did not blitz but rather had more men in coverage to allow the Niners' three or four rushers time to get to Brees.
San Francisco showed that they could handle the elitist offenses in the NFL. So while fans worry about what Green Bay or New England might do to the 49ers in 2012, Rodgers and Brady should be concerned about what the Niners defense is going to do to them. San Francisco's defense didn't flinch in the playoffs and they won't flinch in the regular season, whether it's on the road or not.
The Niners have the defensive makeup and know-how to beat the powerhouse offenses in the league. To be honest, this squad is as close to perfection for three levels of defense (defensive line, linebackers and secondary) than any unit in the past ten years.