By Will McDougle
The San Francisco 49ers struggled under the weight of Mike Singletary’s dictatorial reign as head coach in 2010. Enter former Stanford Head Coach Jim Harbaugh. One of the biggest coaching staff changes under the new Harbaugh regime was the hiring of Vic Fangio, his former Stanford defensive coordinator.
Vic Fangio spent nearly 24 years as an NFL assistant coach prior to being hired at Stanford. He has run both 4-3 (Colts) and 3-4 (Panthers, Houston) defenses and has close ties with Packers Defensive coordinator Dom Capers. One can only assume that after 16 years of working together their defenses may have some similarities.
Scheme: 3-4 Base defense
Defensive Philosophy: Like the Rams and the Cardinals profiled earlier, Vic Fangio’s 49ers will likely look to apply pressure from all directions. History has a way of repeating itself , and his penchant for heavily calling blitzes have been legendary. In a 1995 game against the Colts he ordered his Panthers defense to blitz 48 times in a 50 play stretch, recording 7 sacks in the process.
“I don’t think I’m a risk-taker, but I would say I’m an educated gambler,” Fangio to the Charlotte Observer in 1996. “I want to know what the risks are and what the rewards are before I do something. I need to be convinced the rewards are high and the risk is worth taking.”
Greatest Strength: Without seeing much of the new defense on the field it’s hard to say what will stand out. But I will speak to a couple of players who have a heavy impact on what the 49ers do defensively. Several nice off-season acquisitions in the secondary could ultimately be where this team shines, but according to the Defensive Hog Index at ColdHardFootballfacts.com the 49ers front 7 is by far, the cornerstone of the defense.
DE Justin Smith is the highest rated 3-4 DE in football according to ProFootballFocus.com. Using their grading scheme, Smith scored 29 points higher than the 2nd highest rated DE Cullen Jenkins. His amazing ability to disrupt both the running and passing game of an offense is why he will be such a nightmare for the Seattle Seahawks’ inexperienced offensive line. The communication and execution of Tom Cable’s new protection schemes will be paramount.
ILB Patrick Willis has been a star since he was drafted with the 11th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft. His multiple All-Pro honors & Pro-Bowls are validation of his tireless effort on the field. While I refuse to count out of context tackle stats as the barometer of defensive prowess, the fact that he led the league in tackles in 09, and has led his team in tackles year after year says something. What says even more is his teams ability to stop the run with him as the catalyst, ranking 6th last season.
With a defense highly touted by their loyal fans as one of the best in the league, assumptions fly that the 49ers are just another offensive system, and QB to command it, away from an NFC West title. One thing is for certain, the 49ers have the pieces in place to make some noise on defense. The question is; with the lockout, completely new coaching staff, newly installed defense, and multiple roster changes, will they?