49ers linebacker Patrick Willis knocks a pass away from Brandon Pettigrew of the Lions Sunday.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked five times Sunday, and his running backs couldn’t find any holes.
In the end, it turned into a frustrating afternoon for Stafford and the Lions, who lost 25-19 to the 49ers on their own field after beginning the season 5-0.
Stafford had seen up close and personal what the rest of the league is beginning to see in the Niners.
“They have a good defense,” he said.
On Sunday, the 49ers defense looked fast, aggressive and athletic in stopping the Lions running game, putting pressure on Stafford and holding star receiver Calvin Johnson without a touchdown in a game for the first time this year.
Linebackers Patrick Willis (seven tackles, three passes defended), NaVorro Bowman (game-high 13 tackles), rookie Aldon Smith (two sacks and a safety) were all over the field. Defensive tackle Justin Smith had seven tackles and 1½ sacks, and rookie corner Chris Culliver came up big in helping blanket Johnson.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was effusive in his praise for his unit.
“We just kept going out there and stopping them, for the most part,” Fangio told the San Francisco Chronicle. “On the road. In this building. With all the firepower that they have on their offense. We knew it was going to be this kind of game, where it was going to be a struggle for our offense … and we had to stand up to that on defense, because if we would have caved in on defense, we would have had no chance.”
Said 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who finished off the team’s fourth-quarter, go-ahead drive with a 6-yard TD strike to Delanie Walker with 1:51 remaining: “The defense played unbelievable today. They deserve all the credit for the W. I mean, just played lights out.”
The 49ers now rank No. 2 in the league in fewest points allowed per game (16.2), 12th in overall defense (335 yards per game) and No. 2 in rushing defense, giving up just 74.7 yards per game.
Willis, the 49ers’ defensive leader, told ESPN, “It’s amazing to see the transformation” in the team from last year to 2011.
San Francisco came up big when it counted defensively Sunday, stopping the Lions on 13 of 15 third-down opportunities and allowing just one TD in three goal-to-go situations.
After the game, cornerback Carlos Rogers noted that ever since San Francisco suffered its only loss this season – to the Cowboys in overtime – the defense has been much stouter as the game has progressed.
“That Cowboy game was a learning lesson for us,” Rogers told ESPN. “We played four quarters (then), but we didn’t play into overtime.”
The 5-1 49ers, atop the NFC West, now have a bye this Sunday before playing host to the Browns Oct. 30.