49ers Super Bowl chances aren’t over with third-string QB. Here’s why.

Defense wins championships. Right?

You won’t get any argument from Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, who knows a thing or two about defense and championships.

Lott’s former team, the San Francisco 49ers, are down to third-string quarterback Brock Purdy, but have the NFL’s best defense. That’s never been the exact formula for a Super Bowl crown – no team has ever won the Lombardi Trophy with a quarterback who opened the season as No. 3 on the depth chart – but great defenses have certainly led the way before.

“You’re excited because you’re talking about something that nobody’s done in a while,” Lott told USA TODAY Sports.

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When Lott professes to be excited, it’s worth paying attention. During his brilliant career, which included winning four Super Bowl rings with the 49ers, he wore passion and emotion on his sleeve. There was no questioning the man’s heart. I mean, he once had a portion of a finger amputated to keep playing. So, I’ll take his enthusiasm for the 49ers defense at his word.

“That D-line is deadly,” Lott said, “like something we’ve seen in years past, like with the old Steelers.”

That’s a strong comparison, measuring the unit that starts Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam and Kevin Givens to The Steel Curtain standard that was personified by Mean Joe Greene. But Lott is prone to draw on history to make a point, which is why he also dropped mentions of L.T. (Lawrence Taylor) and the ’85 Bears when discussing great defenses.

Of course, for this current, fast and complete 49ers defense – Lott raves about linebacker Fred Warner, cornerback Jimmie Ward and D-coordinator DeMeco Ryans, too – to rank among the best ever it will need to merely save the Super Bowl 57 vision that you might think was lost when Jimmy Garoppolo suffered his season-ending foot injury on Sunday.

Now that would be special. An elite D taking “Mr. Suddenly Relevant” along for the ride.

“It’s not an impossible ask,” Lott said. “This defense is capable of getting three turnovers every game. If you can do that, your offense always feels like there’s an extra chance of winning.”

Even an offense quarterbacked by Purdy,  the last player drafted last spring?

“The way they run their offense, it can work,” Lott said. “They have too many great playmakers. As Joe (Montana) would always say, ‘I’ve got to get the ball to the right people.’ It’s the same thing now. You make the right decision. It’s hard to mess it up. The key to winning games is not beating yourself. Hopefully, they’re able to get those 3-4 turnovers.”

The 49ers (8-4), hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, have the NFL’s top-ranked defense for total yards and rushing yards. They’ve allowed a league-low 15.8 points per game. In containing Miami’s red-hot offense during a 33-17 victory last weekend, they pitched an 0-for-7 shutout on third-down conversions. At one point in the third quarter, they intercepted Tua Tagovailoa – who entered the game as the NFL’s most efficient passer, but left with the worst single-game rating (79.7) in a game that he finished this season – on consecutive passes. They ended the game with turnovers on Miami’s final three possessions – via downs, a fumble touchdown and a pick.

One of Lott’s takeaways from the latest effort: “There were some guys trying to establish their name and likeness!”

Over the past five games, the 49ers have allowed seven points in the second half. Total. That doesn’t happen by accident.

Lott heaps a ton of praise on Ryans, who in recent years has emerged as a hot head coaching candidate. Ryans, an Alabama product, played 10 NFL seasons at linebacker for the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles. He landed his first coaching job on any level with the 49ers in 2017 and has thrived. Ryans was promoted to coordinator in 2021 after Robert Saleh became the New York Jets coach.

Lott sees a whole lot of Nick Saban in Ryans.

“He’s a ‘Mini-Me’ of Saban,” Lott said. “He understands the elements of what it takes to get people to play hard. He’s probably as close to Nick Saban as anyone when it comes to that.”

For all of the talent the 49ers have assembled in building a great defense, with the personnel actions led by GM John Lynch (who ironically starred as a Hall of Fame safety for a 2002 Bucs unit that ranks among the greatest defenses), they have also established some essential chemistry with Ryans pushing the buttons.

“You know, Buddy Ryan loved getting guys to play hard,” said Lott, dropping another historical reference as Ryan coordinated the defense that led the Chicago Bears to Super Bowl XX glory. “That’s the same characteristic that he (Ryans) has. That’s his secret sauce. He knows how to touch your heart, how to get guys to play harder for the guy next to you. That, to me, is why he’s going to be a head coach.”

In the meantime, the questions will persist as the 49ers roll toward the playoffs with their unique challenge. Can they win in Philly in January? Will Purdy buckle under pressure? Is San Francisco’s defense really one of the best ever?

One thing for certain: They can’t answer history’s call and join any debates about the greatest defenses ever without the crowning achievement of Super Bowl glory.

“You can look at so many of the great defenses,” Lott said. “There was Willie Davis and the great Green Bay Packers teams. The Steelers. L.T.’s group. You’ve got to have a lot of things that make for dominant defenses. And with Bosa, Fred Warner, Jimmie Ward and others, they have all of those elements to be dominant.”

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