SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The change in the San Francisco 49ers’ attitude this season might be most evident when the defensive backs gather in a team meeting room each week to watch the highlight video from the previous game.
Secondary coach Ed Donatell, a former defensive coordinator at the University of Washington, counts and compares the number of “domination hits” in a fierce and friendly competition among players. The challenge is for each to deliver at least one crushing — but legal — blow every game.
“We’re not really trying to hurt people,” strong safety Donte Whitner said. “But when we play physical, people get hurt.”
The hard-hitting, ball-hawking secondary has created its share of imposing images for San Francisco (14-3) this season, part of a defense that has carried the franchise to the NFC championship game for the first time in 14 years to face the New York Giants (11-7) on Sunday at Candlestick Park.
Whitner and fellow safety Dashon Goldson, a former Huskies standout, were a last-minute pairing in training camp. Goldson seemed certain he wouldn’t return after Whitner signed as a free agent from the Buffalo Bills, even tweeting goodbye to 49ers fans, only to have the franchise re-sign him.
The same might’ve been said for cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. San Francisco cut high-priced cornerback Nate Clements just before training camp in favor of a duo that had its share of problems picking off passes.
General manager Trent Baalke’s decisions in the secondary have turned into 49ers gold, building the back end of a defense that led the NFL with 38 takeaways — including a half-dozen interceptions each for Rogers and Goldson.
“They really bring a tone-setting physicality to their tackling,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Take Sunday for instance.
During a collision-filled 36-32 victory over New Orleans, Whitner lowered his helmet into Saints running back Pierre Thomas just short of the goal line on the first possession of the game. The hit instantly turned Thomas’ arms limp, knocking the ball loose — and Thomas out for the game — for the first of five Saints turnovers.
It was a prime example of what the 49ers call “domination hits.”
“It puts fear in offenses. They have to look twice before going across the middle,” Brown said.
With Eli Manning and the Giants fresh off a stunning upset at Green Bay, the Niners aren’t about to become passive.
“If you put our film on all year long, you’ll see wide receivers getting hit, you’ll see running backs getting hit, you’ll see guys leaving the game early,” Whitner said. “We don’t pride ourselves on hurting anybody, but it’s just being physical. If you be physical with guys, sometimes they’re not going to make it 60 minutes in a football game. We pride ourselves on being the most physical team on the football field. That’s what Pittsburgh’s been doing for so long, that’s what Baltimore’s been doing for so long.
“Now it’s our turn.”