San Francisco 49ers: Revitalized defense faces ultimate challenge vs. Ravens

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The much-improved San Francisco 49ers defense will try and corral Lamar Jackson and the streaking Baltimore Ravens. Can they get the job done?

The remarkable season for the Baltimore Ravens continues as John Harbaugh’s team has won seven straight games after a 2-2 start. The leaders of the AFC North have been particularly impressive as of late.

In their last five outings, they’ve bested the Seattle Seahawks (30-16), New England Patriots (37-20), Cincinnati Bengals (49-13), Houston Texans (41-7) and Los Angeles Rams (45-6) by a combined 202-62 score.

While the Bengals are winless, the other four teams are a combined 32-12 to date. The NFL’s highest-scoring team also leads the league in rushing with a crisp 210.5 yards per contest.

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But here are the 10-1 San Francisco 49ers, tied for the best record in the NFL. And they entered the week with the league’s top-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed and passing yards allowed. And the reversal in performance by Robert Saleh’s unit from a year ago is startling.

Led by a first-round laden defensive front and plenty of talent elsewhere, a team that allowed 435 points and 48 offensive touchdowns in 2018 has seen opposing offenses reach the end zone just 16 times in 11 contests. The Niners have given up just 163 points.

A year ago, this club managed to pick off only two passes and finished with a mere seven takeaways. That number has swelled to the tune of forcing 23 turnovers in the 10-1 start. Led by rookie Nick Bosa and fellow first-round picks such as Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, former Kansas City Chiefs’ standout Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas, San Francisco has racked up a league-high 44 sacks, seven more than all of last season.

Of course, here’s the rub. All those sacks and aggressive play has made this team somewhat vulnerable to the run. The Niners are allowing 111.1 yards per game on the ground, ranking 19th in the NFL. Saleh and his defenders are going to be at their disciplined best against a Ravens’ offense that is getting better on a weekly basis.

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For weeks there have been debates on what team possesses the best defensive unit in the league and it has mostly centered on the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers. The defending Super Bowl champions didn’t fare very well earlier this year in Baltimore. Will Kyle Shanahan and his defense be up to the task this Sunday?