Over the last couple seasons it hasn't been the San Francisco 49ers defense that have held them back during the regular season. In fact, the 49ers defense has held its own since 2009. Last season it ranked sixth overall in rushing yards allowed. However, pass defense was another story (24th in the NFL).
Greg Manusky, who had run the 49ers defense since 2007, was criticized for not using a more aggressive model of the 3-4 defense. Following the 2010 season, Manusky was let go along with most of the San Francisco 49ers coaching staff.
The new defensive coordinator: Vic Fangio
Manusky was replaced by Vic Fangio, who has extensive NFL experience as a defensive coordinator and comes from the Dom Capers school of defensive schemes. This means he is more obliged to play an aggressive style defense, which is apparent from Fangio's stint as defensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers from 1995-1998.
In 1995, Carolina's first season in the NFL, Fangio led them to a No. 8 ranking in overall defense as the expansion team went a surprising 7-9. One year later, the Carolina Panthers played in the NFC Championship game as Fangio led the league’s No. 2 scoring defense.
This scheme was rather simple in the textbook aspect of football: Blitz the quarterback from every angle of the defense. Carolina ended up with a whopping 60 sacks that season and forced 48 turnovers, while surrendering just 13.6 points per game.
Fangio began his NFL coaching career with the New Orleans Saints in 1986 as linebackers coach. During a nine-year span with the Saints he led one of the best linebacker corps in modern NFL history. In 1987, Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling combined for 20 sacks. During Fangio's stint with the Saints Jackson would eclipse 90 sacks, making him a Hall of Fame-caliber linebacker.
The new linebackers coach: Jim Leavitt
Leavitt was the head coach for the University of South Florida from 1997 to 2009. During that span South Florida went from Division II to perennial players in the Big East title hunt. Leavitt's final three seasons with South Florida ended in bowl appearances.
In 2007, South Florida jumped as high as No. 2 in the Associated Press top 25. That season the Bulls defense intercepted 25 passes and featured three future NFL players: Nate Allen, Mike Jenkins and Jerome Murphy.
Leavitt was fired from South Florida following the 2009 season for allegedly grabbing a player by the throat, allegations Leavitt has denied. This was a sad ending for a man that had been the only head coach in the program's 13-year history.
The new secondary coach: Ed Donatell
Here is a coach that has a great NFL resume as a defensive coordinator. Donatell led the Green Bay Packers defense from 2000-2003. During that span the Packers defense finished no lower than 14th in the NFL in scoring defense and they made the playoffs three times.
From 2004 to 2006 Donatell was the defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. In his initial season with the Falcons they went 11-5 and make it all the way to the NFC Championship game. The undermanned Falcons defense finished 14th in scoring defense, while forcing 43 turnovers and netting 48 sacks.
As I noted before, Vic Fangio plans to utilize a defense similar to the ones run in both Green Bay and Pittsburgh. This means using the front three defensive linemen to stop the run and open up lanes for pass rushers from the middle four of the unit.
It is in a sense a 3-4 defense, but there is a lot more to it. You will see San Francisco mix it up a great deal in terms of package, disguising the blitz and rotating the front seven around. The primary responsibility of the net tackle in this scheme will be to take on double teams as the outside pass rushers from the linebacker position attack the offensive backfield.
The defensive ends in this scheme will either rotate over and find a gap in the interior of the offensive line or rush from the outside, thus opening up a hole for the rusher from the middle four of the defense. You will see outside linebacker’s line up as defensive ends. You will also see those slotted at the end positions drop back into coverage.
The blitz tactic in this defense tends to keep offenses off balance as well. You will see blitzes from nearly every angle of the defense. Inside linebackers will rotate outside and blitz, while outside linebackers will be asked to drop back into coverage.
As evidenced by the play of Troy Polamalu, this defense relies heavily on a strong safety willing to jump into the box as an extra linebacker and blitz the quarterback. He will be asked to maintain coverage up the middle if necessary, but more often than not his role will be as an extra blitzer. This makes is extremely hard for the opposing offense to pick up the blitz.
The defensive line
Smith an play in both the 4-3 and 3-4 scheme. He started his career with the Cincinnati Bengals and excelled in their traditional defensive approach. Since joining the San Francisco 49ers, Smith has been one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the entire game.
Smith is extremely solid in the rushing game and gets to the quarterback more than any other defensive end playing in a 3-4 defense. His ability to move inside is also a great asset to the 49ers defense; he has is stout against the run when playing inside. In fact, Smith played defensive tackle in the 2009 Pro Bowl.
Sopoaga hasn't played as a full-time defensive tackle in the NFL but he has the build to play there. He is 326 pounds and has an extremely strong frame. You can expect Soapoaga to handle the interior of the defensive line much like his predecessor, Aubrayo Franklin, did.
The role of the net tackle in this scheme is to clog the middle, take on double teams and open up the outside for oncoming pass rushers. I think that Sopoaga will be able to handle that rather well.
McDonald was second among 3-4 defensive ends in quarterback hurries last season behind Justin Smith, but he did not compile a single sack. I am under the impression that sacks are overrated and quarterback pressures mean more to the defense. When pressuring the signal caller a defensive player can create turnover, bad pass or confusion in the passing game.
The San Francisco 49ers re-signed McDonald to a new four-year contract this offseason and expects him to be more of a three-down player than in years past. At 276 pounds, he does fit the mold of what a team is looking for from a 3-4 end.
Brooks was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round of the 2006 supplemental draft after having a great career with the Virginia Cavaliers. After seeing limited action with Cincinnati in two seasons Brooks joined the San Francisco 49ers.
In two seasons with the 49ers Brooks has compiled a total of 11 sacks and is a perfect fit on the outside. San Francisco will be looking for him to play more of an overall role in the defense in 2011. Brooks hasn't showed great coverage awareness in the past, but that is something that Fangio is currently working with him on.
Willis is on his way to becoming a Hall of Fame linebacker. I understand that this sounds like I am jumping the gun, but just look at his accolades in just four NFL seasons: four-time Pro Bowl performer and three time All-Pro. In fact, Willis made the All-Pro team as a rookie.
You are looking at the best all-around linebacker in the entire league. The numbers are just staggering in his short NFL career: nearly 600 tackles, 15 sacks, eight forced fumbles, four interceptions and two touchdowns.
Willis will be asked to blitz more in Fangio's 3-4 defense, which means that he should compile more sacks this season—double digits is my bet. He is a player that can drop back into coverage, control the middle of the field and get to the quarterback. You probably cannot find a better all-around player in the entire NFL.
Bowman is being asked to replace fan favorite, Takeo Spikes. The second-year player from Penn State showed up big time towards the end of the 2010 season. In the finale against the Arizona Cardinals Bowman recorded a career-high eight tackles.
Originally an outside linebacker in college, Bowman made the transition to the inside during his rookie season. It seemed to be a smoother than expected transition for the athletic monster. However, he did have issues in terms of offensive play recognition and coverage, which were magnified in a Week 3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Of course, a rookie making the transition to a new position usually leads to some mental and physical lapses; this was no different with Bowman. That said, you can expect a growth from him in terms of maturity moving into his first full season as a starter opposite Patrick Willis. The duo should be extremely impressive in 2011 and moving forward.
Smith is one of my favorites to win Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011. He will be starting at the right outside linebacker position from Game 1 and has all the tools necessary to dominate at the next level.
The seventh overall pick brings with him an already pro-style pass rush move and an athletic ability that will make opposing quarterback hope that the "Brady Rule" actually impacted them and not just the New England Patriots star.
Smith will line up at both outside linebacker positions as well as at defensive end depending on the scheme. You will see him utilized in blitz packages as the primary pass rusher. However, he isn't going to be just a pass rush specialist in 2011. The San Francisco 49ers are going to ask him to do a lot more.
If the first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints is any indication, Smith is going to live up to expectations.
Make no mistake about it, Rogers is a better cover corner than Nate Clements. He just doesn't get a lot of national press because of his inability to make the big plays on defense. The former Washington Redskins No. 1 corner is exactly what the San Francisco 49ers were looking for this offseason.
You can expect him to have a great amount of impact on defense for San Francisco in 2011. Rogers will be able to essentially shutdown the opposing team’s top receiver, which will have a trickle-down effect for the defense.
Spencer has struggled a great deal over the course of the last couple of seasons after jumping onto the scene his rookie season. These struggles have left a lot of San Francisco 49er followers looking for a replacement.
That said, he is still better than any other corner on the roster not named Carlos Rogers. Injury concerns are an issue as this point as well, but if Spencer can remain healthy he is a solid No. 2 corner in the NFL.
Whitner is the perfect fit as a strong safety in Vic Fangio's defense. He is essentially the type of ball hawk that can define the success of a secondary. After struggling his first couple seasons in Buffalo, Whitner stepped it up big time in 2011.
You will see him utilized in a variety of different ways, but the overwhelming amount of time Whitner will be in the box against the run and rushing the passer.
This is an immediate upgrade at a position of weakness for the 49ers defense.
Smith is currently injured, so Dashon Goldson will be starting at the free safety spot in his absence. All things equal, Smith is a much better fit to start opposite Donte Whitner at safety. He has much better coverage skills than Goldson and fits the FS position the best.
You are definitely looking at an up-and-coming superstar in Smith, who should have a breakout season in 2011.
Many people expect the losses of Aubrayo Franklin, Takeo Spikes, Manny Lawson and Nate Clements to really hurt this San Francisco 49ers defense. I don't fall into that category. While, those players did have some success as a member of the 49ers, they weren't great fits for what Fangio is attempting to build with this team.
This style defense requires that you have a few different players that can be asked to do a wide variety of things. For example, Franklin was only slotted to be the net tackle in the 49ers defense last season, which limited the rotation possibilities for the front three.
This season the 49ers are able to utilize their entire front three depending on game specific situations. With the exception of Ray McDonald, the entire rotation can play both inside and outside.
This will keep them all fresh.
In regards to the linebacker situation, sure, I would have loved for San Francisco to have kept Spikes around for another season, but it just wasn't possible logistically. He ended up signing a three-year contract with the San Diego Chargers, which was a surprise considering Spikes' age.
NaVorro Bowman is more than an adequate replacement for Spikes and he complements the talents of Patrick Willis much better. Those two are going to be extremely difficult inside linebackers for opposing offensive coordinators to plan against. You will see multiple blitz packages coming from the inside of the front seven and that is going to cause a lot of headaches.
It has been said—and I must be inclined to agree—that the secondary is only as good as the pass rush. This means that if you give the quarterback ample time to pass the ball he is going to eventually find an open receiver. Utilizing the blitzes and recognizing mismatches is going to make the 49ers secondary just that much stronger.
Offenses within the NFC West are going to have a lot of issues against this San Francisco 49ers defense. The St. Louis Rams have a completely different offensive coordinator and game plan. The Arizona Cardinals have a new quarterback and have lost a couple key offensive components. And the Seattle Seahawks arguably downgraded at the quarterback position in replacing Matt Hasselbeck with Tarvaris Jackson.
Offensive line play has also been an issue with every team in the NFC West, San Francisco included. When you have a team running a variation of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense it is going to be real hard for opposing offenses to make big plays. This is magnified when the blitzes are sent from less obvious positions, such as inside linebacker and free safety.
The struggles will be obvious when NFC West offenses go up against the 49ers defense in 2011.
You couple that with the fact the 49ers are going to play an aggressive defense and it leads me to believe they have the upper hand heading into the season.
Even with the 49ers' possible struggles on offense.