Kurtenbach: The 49ers defense was ‘an embarrassment’ in the NFC Championship Game. Then they started pressuring Jared Goff

SANTA CLARA — At halftime of the NFC Championship Game, a league source texted me a question:

“Where do you think Steve Wilks will coach next year?”

The implication was that the 49ers’ defensive coordinator would not be in San Francisco next season.

And after the Niners’ dismal first-half defensive performance Sunday, I couldn’t disagree with that premise.

But I can tell you where Wilks will coach in two weeks: Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.

The 49ers’ first-half defense had, simply, the worst two quarters it had played all season.

The defensive line might as well have been wearing roller skates. The players behind them were missing tackles left and right. And Wilks kept calling the same basic, predictable, easily beatable zone defenses where the Niners rushed four and dropped seven.

Oh, and the Lions ran for 148 yards in the first half. Everyone was involved in that debacle.

And the Niners were lucky to escape, only allowing 132 yards passing through two quarters. They were putting no pressure on Lions quarterback Jared Goff — one of the NFL’s most accurate passers when he has time and space — and letting Detroit tight end Sam LaPorta and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown — two of the sharpest route-runners in the game — to find the soft parts of the defense with ease.

Seriously, every single first-half play against the pass was zone coverage in the first half. It was easy pickings.

Yes, the Niners’ defense was pinned deep in its own territory on one drive cause of a Brock Purdy interception, but their performance wasn’t a byproduct of bad luck — it was bad football.

Detroit led 24-7 at halftime. It should have been 28-7, but Goff missed an unpressured touchdown throw to Jahmyr Gibbs, and the Lions settled for a field goal.

“It’s just an embarrassment as a defense of how they were just going right down the field,” Nick Bosa said.

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If the Niners stood any chance of winning Sunday’s game and going to the Super Bowl, the defense needed to flip the script on, well, everything in the second half.

They needed to play a perfect two quarters of football.

And while I don’t think the Niners did that exactly, they did do enough to win the game.

As Purdy and the 49ers’ offense mounted its incredible comeback, scoring 27 points in the second half, the 49ers’ defense ensured those points were unanswered.

“I told the team there was no more time for pep talks,” Fred Warner said. “Offense had the ball up first. They had to go score. Defensively, we had to get a stop; if we didn’t, we’re not going to Vegas.”

The Lions had a lot to do with the turnaround — they panicked in the big moments.

But the Niners more than facilitated the Honolulu Blue choke job.

Going into Sunday’s game, the key for the 49ers was to pressure Goff.

It turned out to be easier said than done.

But the splits in statistics for the quarterback when pressured and when in a clean pocket were flabbergasting: a passer rating of 63 when pressured but 116 when clean.

That’s a massive 53-point difference in rating.

But Sunday, per ESPN tracking, the difference was even more stark:

Goff went 25 of 33 for 273 yards and a touchdown when he was not under pressure Sunday. That’s a passer rating of 109.

But when he was pressured, he didn’t complete a single one of his eight passes. That’s a passer rating of 39.

That’s a 70-point swing.

Now, a few of those pressured incompletions were drops, but the point stands — the Niners had to get after Goff, and they finally did in the second half.

He helped give them the game.

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And thanks to more blitzes and stouter run defense, they stopped the Lions from scoring in the second half until the game was in hand.

The 49ers’ defense cannot pretend they weren’t terrible in the first half. They can’t take all the credit for the second-half turnaround, either.

But there was a job to do, and it was done, and the Niners have another game because of it.

And their foe in that contest, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, won’t provide as much quarter as Goff did on Sunday.

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