SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers might have the most formidable front seven in the NFL, but those aren't necessarily the guys leading the way for the NFL's top-ranked defense.
A team known for stopping the run is now even better at stopping the pass.
The 49ers led the NFL in rushing defense last season, but this year the pass defense ranks No. 1. A lot of that has to do with the play of four rangy defenders on the back end who have grown as a unit to become a shutdown secondary.
The next challenge comes Monday night in a key NFC West game against Arizona, a team with a weak running game that likely will have to throw to catch up with first-place San Francisco in the division.
That approach hasn't worked so well for opponents so far this season. In today's pass-happy NFL, San Francisco (5-2) has held five of its seven opponents below 200 yards passing and three to 115 yards or fewer.
Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown and safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are in their second season together as a starting unit and seem to be getting better by the week. San Francisco has allowed an average of just 130.7 yards passing over its past four games.
"They're playing outstanding together," coach Jim Harbaugh said Saturday. "There's so much communication on the back end, communicating calls, communicating leverage, strength, formation, what the call is, technique they're going to play. There's a lot of communication that takes place back there."
The secondary was at its best during last week's 13-6 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, who did little damage through the air while finishing with 115 yards passing.
The 49ers frustrated rookie quarterback Russell Wilson into just nine completions in 23 attempts, and Goldson swooped in from the deep middle for his second interception to thwart a Seattle threat late in the third quarter.
Goldson, who like Rogers went to his first Pro Bowl last season, has picked up where he left off last year and the defensive backs around him also have shown growth.
"Dashon's just one of all the guys out there that has improved that much," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "I'd say the same thing for Whitner, Brown, Rogers, (nickel cornerback Chris) Culliver, all those guys back there. When you get a bunch of guys improving a little bit, it adds up to big results."
It has led to a dynamic secondary that is benefiting from the strong play of a front seven that features All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith and All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.