NEW ORLEANS - As much attention as the San Francisco 49ers’ unique offense has received, their defense might be the more impressive of the two units.
Veteran center Matt Birk issued high praise to the D this week.
“Last year, when we played these guys on Thanksgiving, I think it was the best defense I ever played against,” he said. “It’s going to take probably our best effort.”
The Ravens won’t be expecting an easy time moving the ball against the 49ers, who owned the NFL’s third-best defense during the regular season and were stout against the pass and run, ranking fourth against both.
San Francisco finished second with 17.1 points allowed per contest.
“We expect them to be very good. They’re one of the best defenses in the NFL,” tight end Dennis Pitta said. “Top to bottom, they’ve got talented players all over. We’ve got our work cut out for us all week, and it’s certainly a challenge, but we’re excited to play.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh has repeatedly called the two teams’ set of safeties the best in the league, as the 49ers boast Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson.
Whitner had 82 tackles, an interception and two forced fumbles. Goldson led the team with three picks to go with 67 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
“I think they’re really two good safeties. Both of them are Pro Bowl safeties and for good reason,” wideout Anquan Boldin said. “They played well all year. Two physical guys. Both of them are good run stoppers. I think Goldson has good range in the back end as well.”
So how do the Ravens match up with the 49ers secondary?
“I think we can get big plays against any defense we play,” wideout Torrey Smith said. “You just have to go out there and do it. They’re professionals just like we are. They’re a great secondary, and they have playmakers. They have made a lot of plays this year. It is definitely going to be a tough challenge, but it’s one-on-one battles. If we go out there and play our game, we’ll be fine.”
In the front seven, San Francisco is led by linebackers Navorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, as well as defensive tackle Justin Smith. The unit combined for 38 sacks this year.
Guard Marshal Yanda knows who he believes poses the biggest threat.
“Aldon Smith, you know, 19.5 sacks, but you can go with Patrick Willis, too,” Yanda said. “There’s a lot of guys, Justin Smith, but if you have to pick one, I’d go with Aldon Smith. Justin Smith complements him, but Aldon Smith.”
Opposing teams have had some success against the 49ers when they run more than they pass. So quarterback Joe Flacco thinks that’s how the Ravens should attack.
“I think the biggest thing that will get us off to a good start and be able to challenge those guys will be our offensive line doing a great job protecting and run blocking for our running backs,” Flacco said. “If they can start off good and kind of set the tone then we’ll be able to do what we want to and get to a little bit of the stuff that we think can throw (San Francisco) off a little bit.
“If not, it may be a tough day for us, but I think our offensive line has been doing a great job and if they can continue to do that then we’ll do what we want to be able to do.”