SEATTLE — The 49ers defense picked a great time to rediscover its identity.
While September and October football seems important, that’s merely a feeling-out period.
If you’re a good team, the games that really matter come when there’s a chill in the air and the wind chaps your face.
All that’s truly remembered is how you play in November and December.
The 49ers are a good team and their defense has started the season’s critical stretch with a statement to the rest of the league: This unit is still elite.
If the Niners’ defense plays like it has the last few weeks — if it plays like it did Thursday night against the Seahawks — the possibilities for this team are endless.
It might even result in some memories made in February.
There was a feeling out period for this defense, yes.
The Niners went into their bye week carrying a three-game losing streak and the bad taste of being carved up by the Bengals in Santa Clara.
Nothing seemed to be working on defense. The team’s new defensive coordinator seemed mystified by the Niners’ personnel and former schemes, the front and the back end were disconnected, and San Francisco seemed incapable of stopping either the run or pass. Worse yet, the issues were compounding by the week.
In that moment, it was easy to assume that a once-great defense — arguably the NFL’s best over the last two seasons — had fallen. Such greatness is fleeting, after all.
Well, it turns out that greatness was merely dormant.
It’s undeniably back.
Since returning to the field on Nov. 12 in Jacksonville, the Niners’ defense has won three games in blowout fashion.
In two of those wins, the Niners’ defense prevented its opponents from reaching the end zone.
Thursday night in Seattle, there was a point just before halftime where the Niners’ offense had more first downs (16) than the Seahawks had yards (15) or offensive plays (14). They went on to hold the Seahawks without an offensive touchdown.
“The way the defense played tonight was unbelievable,” Kyle Shanahan said. “Real impressive game.”
There are a few things behind the Niners’ turnaround.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks being on the sideline has helped with communication between the play-caller and the players.
Wilks’ move of Deommodore Lenoir to slot corner in nickel sets has proven to be a masterstroke, too.
But the main reason this defense once again looks like a title contender is because they’re hitting the quarterback once again.
Thursday night, the Niners’ pass rush made easy work of a patchwork Seattle offensive line and smacked, twisted, and bent Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith play after play.
The Niners were credited with 12 hits of Smith, converting six of those hits into sacks.
And while one sack was merely Smith tripping on the Seattle turf, the point stands: the Niners’ pass rush controlled the game Thursday.
It was just like old times.
“I always talk about getting back to playing our style,” Niners linebacker Fred Warner told me. “Ever since we got Chase Young, things kind of flipped around, didn’t they?”
Warner was joking, but there’s no question that adding the uber-talented defensive end before the Oct. 31 trade deadline has made a difference for this defense.
It’s revitalized Nick Bosa’s season — that’s for sure. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year had been a non-factor too much of the time, registering just three sacks in the first eight games.
Niners coaches tried to take away offensive attention from him with three other defensive ends, but Young is the one who has done the job. It’s no coincidence that since Young arrived, the Niners have 15 sacks in three games. Bosa has five.
Frankly, he could have more. Bosa was in the Seahawks’ backfield so often Thursday, Smith probably knows what cologne he wears. He had two sacks, and the game’s official scorer robbed him of a share of at least three others.
That’s a good sign, though. So many 49ers were hitting Smith, it was difficult to credit just two of them with a sack.
“I think how much we’re rushing as a group has changed,” Shanahan said. “I think after we came back from the bye week, we’ve moved a little bit better.”
“When we weren’t getting all the sacks, I still felt we were getting to the quarterback and hitting him. Takes a whole group to get those numbers. I think we’ve been doing that.”
The defensive resurgence, led by the pass-rush revitalization, has the Niners sitting atop the NFC West. If they beat these Seahawks again on Dec. 10, they should have the division won well before Christmas. This is all well and good.
The only caveat to this is that this Niners’ defense hasn’t faced the best of the best since the bye. Among Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and Seattle, only one offense might even be considered Top-10.
The Niners won’t have to wait long for a real test.
Next Sunday, San Francisco will play the Eagles in Philadelphia.
Yes, the Eagles with an elite offensive line. The Eagles with a game-breaking running back and even better wide receivers. The Eagles with a quarterback who is just as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm, which is to say he is as lethal as a cobra.
The Eagles’ offense is the NFL’s ultimate test.
This Niners’ defense looks like a team eager for a real challenge.
The Dec. 3 game might not be the NFC Championship, but it’s not far off.
And for this resurgent Niners team, which is, once again, elite at rushing the passer on defense and the ball on offense, it’s a chance to make an even bigger statement to the rest of the league.
Yes, the Niners are back.
Next Sunday, we’ll find out if anyone can do anything about it.