There are many reasons why the San Francisco 49ers are one of the NFC's best teams at 6-1. New head coach Jim Harbaugh has done a wonderful job instilling a new era of toughness and accountability to a franchise that has been talented but a bit goofy over the past few years, quarterback Alex Smith has backed away from the "bust" label after several years of orbiting it, running back Frank Gore is on pace to have his best season in years, and a young and inconsistent offensive line has been helped along by the creativity of Harbaugh's blocking schemes
But the real story of the 2011 49ers is a defense that is beating the living hell out of running backs at an historic rate. People may not know that Harbaugh wasn't the only coach that migrated to the San Francisco front office from Stanford after the 2010 season — defensive coordinator Vic "Lord" Fangio has put together a run defense that is stopping opposing backs in ways not seen since professional football pulled itself out of the primordial muck over 90 years ago.
The 49ers are the only NFL team in history — and the only pro football team since the 1920 Buffalo All-Americans of the American Professional Football Association (which became the NFL soon after) — to rush for a touchdown in each of its first seven games without allowing a rushing touchdown in any of those games. The stats go on — the 49ers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in the last 28 games, which predates Fangio's excellence and allows us to give a much-deserved shout out to former DC Greg Manusky, who did a great job for the team from 2007 through 2010.
Here's the thing, though — if you're a running back facing the 49ers this season, it's not just that your numbers are going to plummet … you also might want to have a trainer nearby. As Kevin Ewoldt of the SBN Washington Redskins website Hogs Haven points out, that same San Francisco defense has injured six different backs since the preseason.
Pre-season - Arian Foster hurt his hamstring on a Patrick Willis tackle.
Week 2 vs DAL - Felix Jones wrist injury on 2nd carry of game (also separated his shoulder). Missed a few series and only had 9 carries total.
Week 4 vs PHI - LeSean McCoy was banged up and only had 9 carries.
Week 5 vs TB - LeGarrette Blount sprained knee on a tackle - hasn't played since (though is practicing again).
Week 6 vs DET - Jahvid Best was concussed and has not played a snap since.
Week 8 vs CLE - Montario Hardesty - calf injury on a hard tackle (out indefinitely).
It gets worse. Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News puts forth the following fourth-quarter (and total) numbers for the first six starting backs the 49ers have faced this season:
— Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks: 0 carries, 0 receptions. Game total: 13 carries for 33 yards, 2 receptions for 12 yards.
— Felix Jones, Cowboys: 1 carry for 4 yards, 0 receptions. Game total: 9 carries for 25 yards, 1 reception for 4 yards.
— Cedric Benson, Bengals: 4 carries for 16 yards, 0 receptions. Game total: 17 carries for 64 yards.
— LeSean McCoy, Eagles: 1 carry for 1 yard, 1 reception for 15 yards. Game total: 9 carries for 18 yards, 6 receptions for 34 yards and a touchdown.
— LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers: 0 carries, 0 receptions. Game total: 10 carries for 34 yards, 2 receptions for 31 yards.
— Jahvid Best, Lions: 1 carry for minus-1 yard, 0 receptions. Game total: 12 carries for 37 yards, 6 receptions for 73 yards.
The fourth quarter of the 49ers' Week 8 win over the Cleveland Browns basically consisted of quarterback Colt McCoy running around and trying to make plays in vain, so there aren't many fourth-quarter running back numbers to speak of.
On Sunday, the 49ers play the Washington Redskins, who made their own bit of history last week against the Buffalo Bills by becoming the first team coached by Mike Shanahan (as a head coach or coordinator) to be shut out in an NFL game. And in that game, the Redskins put up just 26 rushing yards on 11 carries. Take out three scrambles by quarterback John Beck, and it's eight carries for 16 yards.
Could we be looking at the first negative rushing yardage total for a team in an entire game in goodness knows how long? Things seem to be moving in that direction.