SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers have been like chameleons for most of the season, adapting and changing to win games. When they’ve been at their absolute best, the engine that makes it all go has been a dominant defense capable of setting the table for a punch-you-in-the-mouth running game.
For a stretch late in the season, when injuries hit the defense, the Niners had to change their colors. But as Sunday’s 37-20 throttling of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game and last week’s 27-10 demolition of the Minnesota Vikings show, the 49ers are again doing what they do best — and at just the right time.
“Our defense is back,” 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “Our defense is healthy again, and they suffocate other teams, and it allows us to stay in front and control the clock and run the ball.”
Indeed, the same suffocating defense that leaned on its front four to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks and created timely turnovers in the first half of the season looks whole again after the returns of linebacker Kwon Alexander (pectoral), end Dee Ford (hamstring/quad) and safety Jaquiski Tartt (ribs) from injuries.
It’s no coincidence the group appears to be firing on all cylinders as they head into Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs.
In two postseason games with almost all hands on deck, the 49ers’ defense has allowed 252.5 yards, 41.5 rushing yards and 14 first downs per game and has come up with nine sacks, leading all postseason teams in those categories.
Against the Packers, the 49ers’ defense pitched a shutout in the first half, as San Francisco built a commanding 27-0 halftime lead. That performance offered more evidence the time off after wrapping up a first-round bye benefited not only those dealing with injuries but also the entire defense.
“That bye week was key, you know, getting the No. 1 seed, having home-field advantage, all of it, it was a big, key ingredient for us and our success,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “Having the guys back who came back from injury who were out a majority of the year, having them back brings that chemistry back and also the dominance. Even the guys who played a lot, we can really get our legs back under us and everything. The ceiling is high with this team.”
In the moments after their win against Green Bay, the 49ers took some time to celebrate and acknowledged Sunday night would be spent basking in their turnaround from 4-12 to NFC Champions. Still, there was an unmistakable sense it wouldn’t be long before the Niners started thinking about the Chiefs.
After all, Kansas City boasts one of the league’s best offenses, with a mobile, big-armed quarterback who threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns in a 2018 Week 3 win against the 49ers. Of course, those Niners aren’t these Niners.
“We aren’t just happy to be here,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “Guys are playing to win, so guys are going to treat it like a game they are trying to win. … They are not sitting here like, ‘Oh my God, let’s celebrate. We are in the Super Bowl.’ Why go if you are not trying to win? So we are going to prepare for a great opponent, a prolific offense, a great quarterback, a great freaking trio of receivers and a good back, a good O-line, and we have a huge challenge. And we look forward to that. You would have it no other way.”