How Vic Fangio Maximizes the San Francisco 49ers Defense

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How Vic Fangio Maximizes the San Francisco 49ers Defense
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Is San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio the best in the biz?

In the NFL, adaptation is a major barometer for success, and it is for that reason that San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has done one of the bang-up coaching jobs in 2013. Factoring in all the snags and freak occurrences that could’ve derailed this unit, the stability throughout all the negative change has been astounding.

Not only has the 49ers DC done an exceptional job in terms of damage control, but he has also stayed the course, developing players and expanding the system.

Fangio’s levelheaded slant really verified his 26 years of NFL experience, staying calm and collected in pressure situations as if there was nothing he hadn’t seen. And needless to say, it has been a daunting obstacle course, but he has successfully fought through to engineer a top-five defense that is No. 3 in scoring.

He never flinched and his unit continued to produce. 

Scheme, disciplined coaching, play-calling and a total understanding of each player and what he does well has contributed to the fluidity of the defense. On top of knowing their strengths, Fangio understands how to use the players’ strengths to complement each other’s games. 

Most won't notice because he carries out a position behind closed doors, but Vic Fangio is on fire this year like NBA star LeBron James or 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson—at least from a coaching perspective.

The following is a reflection of how Fangio has been the most influential member of the 49ers staff this season and why he's done one of the better coaching jobs in football this year.

 

Perseverance Through Change

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Departures, Absences and Injuries

  • 3/13: The New Year began with a thud, as the 49ers lost All-Pro free safety Dashon Goldson to a big-money contract on the open market. Losing one’s interception leader and tone-setter on the back end would cripple a lot of defensive units.
  • 3/12-16: Not long after, the depth on the defensive line followed suit, including the team’s most versatile backup in Ricky Jean-Francois and starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. These two left for $33 million in combined contract money (via Spotrac), which the 49ers could not and would not match.
  • 7/2: Star cornerback Chris Culliver shredded his ACL in a non-contact special teams drill during OTAs and was ruled out for the season. According to the stat-keepers at Pro Football Focus, he was one of the NFL’s top players at his position before the 49ers’ front seven was banged up.
  • 7/5: Three days later, it was reported that Patrick Willis underwent surgery for a broken hand and would not be at 100 percent to start the season.
  • 8/26: Veteran outside linebacker Parys Haralson was traded to the New Orleans Saints for a conditional seventh-round draft choice. 
  • 9/15: Starting nose tackle Ian Williams was lost for the season with a shattered ankle, broken on a cut-block by Seattle Seahawks offensive guard J.R. Sweezy. He looked exceptional in two games, appearing to be San Francisco’s best true nose tackle in three seasons.
  • 11/4: Nnamdi Asomugha, their sleeper free-agent signee, never awoke from his deep slumber and was eventually given his outright release. Given the developing circumstances, the corner suddenly had to be relied on, but it was more of a liability than anything. Had it not been for backup Tramaine Brock, this could’ve tanked the season.

Not only did the team reach a crossroads with several key players on the defensive side, but a string of bad luck and a conservative approach by the front office did not help Fangio much either. A salary-capped NFL says you cannot hoard X amount of All-Pros, and injuries are as unpredictable as a shooting star.

Altogether, these were the crucial decisions, dings and losses that whipped a monkey wrench in the defensive plans, really putting Fangio in a tough spot. The only splash move the team went out on a limb to make was trading up in Round 1 to nab LSU safety Eric Reid. 

And that's been very conducive, so that transaction is not to be looked overlooked here.

Still, it should be known that this is a defense that had all the pieces and inner workings necessary to have fielded a considerably stronger unit this year. Unfortunately, there were a lot of elements out of their control that put the defense, and particularly its coordinator, outside their respective comfort zones early on.

And it did not get any better as the season progressed.

As part of the aftermath of a DUI incident, 49ers star outside linebacker Aldon Smith would voluntarily enter an in-patient facility to seek treatment, according to FOX Sports insider Jay Glazer. And just like that, a defense missing its best corner suddenly lost its best pass-rusher just three games into the regular season.

No. 99 made up an entire dimension of the defense coming off that edge, particularly with tackle Justin Smith and the Texas stunt.

His presence afforded the 49ers a lot of schematic luxuries that they leaned on during game day, so adjustments had to be made. Ultimately, Fangio was out an All-Pro sack artist—arguably the best in the league—for a total of six weeks (five total games).

Fourteen weeks in, and Smith has only started four games this season.

On top of that, Patrick Willis was also out for one of those matches, missing time with a groin injury. Nevertheless, the team went 5-0 during that stretch, allowing just 12.2 points per game and had the most inspiring defensive play of the season from a bunch of ragtag no-names backing up the nucleus of the defense.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Fangio became more aggressive with the play-calling, dialing up timely blitzes from the inside linebackers and slot cornerbacks, and they didn’t miss a beat.

Continuing on with the injuries, starting cornerback Tarell Brown has sustained a rib injury, which has kept him out for multiple games. Linemen Glenn Dorsey and Ray McDonald have also played incomplete seasons, both relying on third-string defensive tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie to fill in at the nose and end spots on the line.

This amount of injuries would decimate most NFL lines on other side of the ball, but it has remained a position of strength for San Francisco.

Not to mention the fact that Fangio was not afforded the added benefit of rookie draft pick Tank Carradine, who was a bona fide first-round talent. After restarting his rehab once he arrived with the team and having to learn an entirely different defensive scheme at the next level, Carradine was deemed "not ready" by the coaching staff. 

So, as you can see, it’s never-ending.

The 2013 season has just been a constant barrage of variables and setbacks. And having so many unknowns in the lineup put the onus on the coaching staff, particularly Fangio as the ringleader, to ensure things went off without a hitch.

So, how did he do it? Well, he has a keen eye for talent and knows how to optimize it.

 

Calling Upon Bench Strength

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Tramaine Brock

Position: CB

Replacing: NFL Starter

Experience: 4

Entry: Undrafted

 

Bob Martin-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Lemonier

Position: OLB

Replacing: First-Team All-Pro

Experience: Rookie

Entry: Round 3

 

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Wilhoite

Position: ILB

Replacing: Five-Time All-Pro

Experience: 2

Entry: Undrafted

 

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Jerod-Eddie

Position: DT

Replacing: NFL Starter

Experience: 2

Entry: Undrafted

 

Model of Consistency

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Under Fangio, the 49ers have become the ultimate flex defense, in that they bend but don’t break. This was one of the more notable effects the coach had when he took over the foundation of this team in 2011. You may be able to go the length of the field, but when it gets tight, they lock up like breaks on a patch of black ice. 

San Francisco was tough under ex-defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, but they learned how to finish and raise their game when the situation called for it under Fangio. He's also held up his end of the bargain with impeccable play-calling. This kind of all-around consistency is also the mark of a very good defense and reflective of the coaching.

The proof is also in the pudding, as they’ve kept opposing teams to 13 points or less six times this year.

Since their Week 3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the 49ers have held their opponents to an average of 12.5 points per game, which would qualify for best in the league (Carolina Panthers – 13.1 PPG). They’re also a top-five unit in yards allowed per play, according to NFL Team Rankings.

“How do you know if you’re a good defense? You tackle. How do you know if you’re ready to play in a game? You tackle.” – 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh

While Justin Smith and Patrick Willis were two hard-hitters who carried over from the old regime, the Fangio-led Niners have morphed into the NFL's best tackling team. It's what distinguishes them from most other defenses. 

According to Bill Williamson of ESPN, the 49ers defense has allowed 1,177 yards after the catch, which is the sixth-best in the NFL. That’s not too shabby considering they’re in a talented division with players like Larry Fitzgerald, Tavon Austin and Marshawn Lynch.

They contact hard and wrap up, and rarely do you see one guy making the tackle. Two or three 49ers are usually arriving at the ball at once.

Gang tackling is partially the reason why they’re so remarkable versus the run and why it makes headline news whenever a player puts up a big day on the ground. Including the playoffs, the 49ers defense has only allowed nine 100-yard rushers in the past 95 games.

Four of those games belong to one player, Marshawn Lynch, which further emphasizes how rare it is.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most impressive things about Fangio’s defense, and its consistency, is that they’ve been able to bottle up the NFL's eminent superstars. Those red-alert players and explosive game-breaking weapons are effectively contained by a savvy defensive game plan coupled with timely play-calling and execution by the players.

Outside of Marshawn Lynch, no one player has really had the 49ers’ number.

Elusive top-10 pick Tavon Austin was held to six receiving yards on eight targets in his first-ever game versus San Francisco this season and was only able to follow that up with 35 all-purpose yards in their next matchup.

This came in a debut season that saw Austin become the third NFL player in history to have four 50-plus yard touchdowns in a two-game span, placing next to Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Gale Sayers, via NFL Director of Communications Randall Liu

h/t NFL Game Rewind
The 49ers have been able to contain Calvin Johnson by bracketing him and confusing Matthew Stafford with zone blitzes.

So, it's not like you can make the "but he's a rookie" argument. 

Besides, on the other end of the spectrum, All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson was held to 39 receiving yards himself. And not only that, the 49ers used him as bait. Fangio, knowing Houston’s tendencies and that they’d try to force-feed Johnson, dialed up the right coverages and let his players know when to take chances.

Film study and communication from the coaches aided Tramaine Brock’s pick-six in Week 5.

How about holding tight end Jimmy Graham and pocket rocket tailback Darren Sproles under 50 all-purpose yards apiece, while keeping them both out of the end zone? The Niners accomplished that in Week 11 versus the Saints at the Superdome and made it look relatively easy.

But you can scroll back even further, looking at their feats in 2011 and 2012.

By now, it should go without saying that wide receiver Calvin Johnson is the league’s most unstoppable offensive threat, scoring 33 touchdowns from 2011-2013 (4,955 yards from scrimmage). In two games versus the Detroit Lions in that span, the 49ers kept Megatron under 100 yards once and locked him out of the end zone both times.

This defense is far more than just talent-ridden. It takes years of experience and real moxie to devise game plans that shut down the league's most indefensible weapons. 

 

An Invaluable Knowledge of the Game

 

Preaching Opportunistic Football

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

So not only has Vic Fangio’s defense overcome ulcers on the roster and put forth a consistent unit, but he also has his players compensating for an offense that should’ve been operating at a much higher rate of efficiency.

Though not nearly as effective, they’ve been a hard-charging unit, carrying on with the same mentality as the 2000 Ravens or 2002 Buccaneers. The attacking mindset by the defense has led to takeaways and crucial stops, resulting in increased opportunities for an offense that has struggled to stay on the field and score points.

Their defensive performances have had that vast of a ripple effect. 

This season, the Niners have scored off of 19 straight takeaways, finding pay dirt 11 times and settling for eight Phil Dawson field goals. According to the team's Public Relations Director Bob Lange, the 49ers currently lead the league in points off takeaways, while the division rival Seattle Seahawks rank second with 88 points.

For Vic Fangio to exert that extra effort out of his players when the team as a whole needed the boost to cover up the absence of Michael Crabtree, speaks volumes about his impact as a defensive coach and communicator. Had it not been for the 49ers defense, this team probably would've been out of the playoff race a long time ago. 

 

Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise. Special thanks to Pro Football Focus for provided advanced statistics.  

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