‘Tis the season for family festivities, and for many that involves board games, and Monopoly mixed with holiday scotch (that’s just my family?). So in the spirit of the holidays, let’s play a football word association game. I’ll throw out some adjectives describing a team, and you pull out the most recent team your finger lands on in your mental NFL Rolodex.
Defending, running, grinding, and taking risks with the passing game only when absolutely necessary.
Vague? Sure, a lot of teams could fit that description. But the most prominent is likely the world champion 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
Next year we’ll play this game again as the yule log burns, and your answer might be the 2011 San Francisco 49ers. No, the Niners aren’t the record-setting Ravens from 11 years ago, but in many categories they’re not too far off, and we may be left wondering exactly how close they could have come with a full season from Patrick Willis.
The 2000 Ravens posted four shutouts and set records for fewest points allowed (165, or 10.3 per game), and fewest rushing yards allowed (970, or 60.6 per game). If seasons were 14 games long, the 49ers wouldn’t be too far off of those marks, as they’ve currently allowed 185 points (13.2 per game), and 1,001 rushing yards (71.5 per game).
Alas, an NFL season is 16 games long, which shows just how strong that Ravens defense was over a decade ago. But the comparison is still appropriate now, because this is a San Francisco defense that’s played three games without Willis, and could play a fourth game without their anchor tomorrow against Marshawn Lynch. That’s not an excuse, it’s science. Try taking Ray Lewis out of that Ravens defense for a quarter of the season.
While the rest of Baltimore’s front seven and secondary was scary, Lewis in his prime was still the backbone, recording 107 tackles in 2000. That’s 17.2 percent of the team’s total tackles that year, and no other Raven hit 70 (Rod Woodson finished second with 67 tackles). When he went down in Week 13, Willis was on pace for 124 tackles, yet even in his absence the 49ers still haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown, something the Ravens did five times.
Extending beyond purely their tackling and run stuffing, the 49ers have combined the game managing skills of Alex Smith and the sure hands of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter for a turnover differential of +30 (50 defensive interceptions and fumble recoveries, and 20 picks and lost fumbles on offense). That’s an area the Ravens excelled in too, but they fell short of the 49ers with a +23.1.
The only glaring exception between the two defenses separated by over a decade lies in the secondary, and specifically the yardage allowed by both secondaries, an area that’s still a weakness for San Fran despite the offseason additions of Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers. The 49ers are allowing 239.6 passing yards per game, while Baltimore gave up only 187.3.
There’s also a gap in fumble recoveries, with the Ravens at 45, and the 49ers on pace for 33. That gap is shortened by the 49ers’ efficiency in creating turnovers of another kind. Led by Rogers and his six picks, the Niners are second with 21 interceptions, which is only two behind the Ravens’ 2000 total with two games remaining.
Even historic defenses have their weaknesses, and for the Ravens it was pressuring the quarterback, with their 35 sacks ranking 22nd in the league. That’s below average, and the 49ers this year are only a little above average in sacks despite Aldon Smith receiving some consideration for defensive rookie of the year after getting to the quarterback 13 times. Still, San Francisco currently has 35 sacks, setting a pace for 41.
Both teams epitomize the classic grinding style that focuses on the running game and strong defense. Stretching the field deep is only done when it’s essential for success, with neither offense frequently testing the opposing secondary. The Ravens ranked 22nd in passing yards per game (175.9), while even in an era with far more passing the 49ers are 30th (182.4).
The most important difference, though, is perhaps the most telling. Both the Ravens and 49ers were heavily doubted due to their schedule, and only started to receive more respect when they began to stymie and defeat more explosive offenses later in the season. The winning percentage of the Ravens’ opponents was a meager .428. But even though they’ve kicked around far inferior opponents like the Rams and Browns, the winning percentage of the 49ers’ opponents is still much higher at .481.
The weak competition didn’t matter for the Ravens in the playoffs, where they allowed only 23 points over four games, and beat the Giants 34-7 in the Super Bowl. We’ll know soon if that championship is still the most important difference.