Discussions about the NFL are often centered on offense and quarterbacks, however in the words of legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant: “Defense wins championships.”
If you need proof this is still accurate, look no further than the 2021 San Francisco 49ers.
San Francisco earned its second trip to the NFC Championship Game with a 13-10 victory over Green Bay on Saturday night.
How did they pull it off? With the offense scuffling to get itself going, it was on the shoulders of the defense to keep the game close.
After allowing Green Bay to open the game with a 10 play 69-yard touchdown drive, the 49ers defense held the Packers to only 194 yards and three points over the final 54 minutes of the game.
Along the way they forced five three and outs, six punts, and sacked Aaron Rodgers five times.
This isn’t anything new, the defense has been playing at a very high level since being embarrassed by an Arizona Cardinals offense led by Colt McCoy on November 7.
Over the final nine games of the regular season and first two games of the postseason, the 49ers defense has not allowed an offense to score more than 24 points.
Among the offenses faced during that stretch have been the Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, and the Los Angeles Rams twice.
For San Francisco it all starts with the pass rush. Nick Bosa is the key that unlocks the rest of this unit. His presence on the field often forces opposing offenses to focus their pass protection on him, giving the other rushers one on one matchups.
Since the Arizona loss referenced earlier, the 49ers pass rush has averaged 3.7 sacks and 7 quarterback hits per game according to Pro Football Reference.
Arik Armstead, moved to defensive tackle full time against Chicago in week eight has continued to grow in his new role. After having only three sacks and nine quarterback hits over the first 15 games this season, Armstead has caught fire. In the final two regular season games and playoffs Armstead has recorded six sacks and nine quarterback hits.
Against Green Bay on Saturday night, it was a sack from Armstead that forced Green Bay to punt late in the fourth quarter leading to a blocked punt and touchdown for San Francisco.
The depth of the 49ers pass rush may be better in 2021 than it was when they reached the Super Bowl in 2019. Samson Ebukam, D.J. Jones, Arden Key, Kevin Givens, Charles Omenihu and Jordan Willis allow San Francisco to bring waves at opposing quarterbacks all game.
Among the rotation players along the defensive line, Jordan Willis needs to be highlighted.
San Francisco traded its 2022 sixth-round pick to the New York Jets on October 27, 2020, for Willis and a 2021 seventh-round.
Willis has come on strong of late, recording a quarterback hit or sack in six of the last eight games, and the 49ers likely are sitting at home right now if not for his play.
Against Dallas in the Wild Card round it was pressure from Willis that forced Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott into an interception which turned into a 23-7 second half lead for the 49ers.
Then in Green Bay, it was Willis who helped create two of big moments on special teams.
On the final play of the first half, Willis chopped down the arm of a Packers lineman allowing Jimmie Ward to break through to block the Mason Crosby field goal attempt.
In the late moments of the fourth quarter, it was Willis who once again came up big, blocking a Packers punt that Talanoa Hufanga would scoop up and carry into the endzone to tie the game at 10.
While the defensive line wreaks havoc on opposing quarterbacks, Fred Warner sets the tone for San Francisco at the second level with Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt doing the same for the secondary.
Warner may not have been named an All-Pro as he was last season, however he set a career high in tackles with 137 and had seven tackles for loss for the second time.
As is the case for the defensive line with Nick Bosa, the presence of Warner in the middle sets the tone. The attention Warner receives helps free up Azeez Al-Shaair and Dre Greenlaw to make play after play.
Ward and Tartt are the undisputed leaders of the 49ers secondary. Their presence on the backend of the defense is a big reason why opponents struggle to get explosive plays.
In addition to Ward and Tartt, Emmauel Moseley needs to be recognized for his strong play. Moseley’s ability to lock down one side of the field allows the safeties to help in coverage on the other side to help Ambry Thomas, Dontae Johnson or Josh Norman.
For the 49ers to win the NFC Championship and reach Super Bowl LVI, they will need another strong performance from Bosa, Warner, Ward, Tartt and the rest of their defense.