SANTA CLARA — 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 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 on an opponent every game.
“We’re not really trying to hurt people,” 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 back 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.
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Whitner and fellow safety Dashon Goldson 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 days later.
The same might’ve been said for cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. San Francisco cut high-priced cornerback Nate Clements — who received an $80 million, eight-year contract in March 2007 but never met expectations — 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 — with a physical foursome that is drawing comparisons to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens of recent years.
“They really bring a tone-setting physicality to their tackling,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Take last week for instance.
Setting the stage for a collision-filled 36-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints, Goldson walked out for the team’s first practice wearing his game-day eye black. Whitner put in his mouthpiece for the full-padded practice — rare for NFL teams this late in the season — and warned his teammates about what to expect.
“I told them, ‘Get out of my way, because I’m going to hit everything that’s moving,’ ” Whitner said.
He delivered on his promise.
In a moment already glorified by fans among the great 49ers playoff performances, Whitner lowered his helmet into Pierre Thomas just short of the goal line on the Saints’ first series. The collision instantly turned the running back’s arms limp, knocking the ball loose — and Thomas out for the game — for the first of five Saints turnovers.
“When the game comes down to it, and it’s on the line, we have stepped up and made those plays, whether it’s fumbles, tipped balls we’ve got or got an interception at a key moment of the game,” said Rogers, who spent his first six seasons in Washington.
These new 49ers call those “domination hits.”
The term is best described as pummeling a receiver into the ground or forcing a fumble — or sometimes both — if not completely knocking the receiver out. Whitner’s wallop brought back memories of Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, a four-time Super Bowl champion in San Francisco and the source of so many scintillating shots.
All of it is part of the secondary’s goal to build upon its new identity.
“It puts fear in offenses. They have to look twice before going across the middle,” Brown said. “Coach Donatell harps that every week, ‘Put a domination hit on film once a week or once a game or anytime you can.’ ”
San Francisco’s surprising secondary has held its own against some of the NFL’s elite this season, beating Drew Brees, Michael Vick and Eli Manning, among others. With Manning and the Giants fresh off a stunning upset at Green Bay, the 49ers aren’t about to overlook anybody now that they’re just one win from the Super Bowl.
Or 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.”