SANTA CLARA (AP) — Expected to lift the San Francisco 49ers into the playoffs for the first time in eight years, the team’s inconsistent defense has a new sense of commitment to get it done entering the second half of the season.
The first half was a disappointment for defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and his players, who had their ups and downs after returning all 11 starters from a unit that ranked 15th in the NFL last year.
But with the NFC West remaining so weak, there may still be time to rise to the occasion for a defense that began the season starting five Pro Bowlers.
“This is where you make your money if you want to do anything,” Manusky said Thursday. “You have to win in December and November, so that’s what we’ve got to do.”
After an 0-5 start during which San Francisco failed to distinguish itself defensively, that unit began playing winning football before the team’s recent bye week as the 49ers won two of their last three games.
San Francisco allowed a season-low 179 yards and nine points to Oakland in a Week 6 victory. Struggling to force turnovers most of the year, the 49ers had two key takeaways that led to a 24-16 victory over Denver in their Oct. 31 game in London.
Those are signs the defense finally is getting it right after a series of substandard performances earlier in the year, when the 49ers allowed 87 points in their first three games and 352 yards or more five times. San Francisco finished fourth in the NFL last year in fewest points allowed and gave up more than 357 yards in a game five times all season.
“If you watch the tape, you know there’s a lot of guys on this defense playing pretty well,” right end Justin Smith said. “We’ve just had some breakdowns here and there, and you know, it’s total team defense. We’ve all taken our turn in the bad plays. It’s one thing if it’s a physical problem, but 98 percent of our mistakes have been mental and assignment areas, and those things you can clean up and easily fix.”
Coming off his first Pro Bowl season, Smith has been a mainstay, anchoring the defense up front with team-leading totals of four sacks, 26 quarterback hits and 35 quarterback pressures. His 54 tackles rank second on the team only to Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis.
Smith had two pivotal sacks against Denver, and a pumped-up pass rush is something the 49ers are gearing up for over the second half of the season, beginning with Sunday’s key divisional game against the 4-4 St. Louis Rams.
The 49ers have an NFL-high 20 sacks in their past four games against the Rams, all victories, and Smith feels San Francisco will have to continue that trend to be successful this week against St. Louis and its young starting quarterback, Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall selection in this year’s NFL draft.
“(St. Louis) had good players before, but to get them to click, you need a quarterback and he’s been a spark for them,” Smith said. “Before, they were predictable. They couldn’t throw the ball. (Bradford) kind of puts it together so it opens everything up. You can’t just key on the run every play.”
Bradford will test a San Francisco secondary that struggled in key sequences throughout the first half of the season. But that secondary also has come on in recent weeks with rookie Taylor Mays settling in as the starting complement at safety to veteran Dashon Goldson.
The 49ers moved Mays, their second-round draft pick, into the starting lineup after three games in place of former Pro Bowler Michael Lewis, who promptly left the team and later was released. Lewis was signed by the Rams on Oct. 27 and will face his old team Sunday.
Mays already has proven to be an upgrade, and he’s looking to continue his improvement and make plays beside Goldson. Neither of San Francisco’s starting safeties has recorded an interception or recovered or forced a fumble so far this season.
“We have some thoroughbreds and leaders on this defense already, and you could definitely see us getting better the last few weeks,” Mays said. “We feel like the defense is going to be what this defense is. It’s the rock of the team, and that’s what you’re going to see the rest of the way.”
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