Patrick Willis and the San Francisco 49ers Defense: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors

Joseph BurkeyAnalyst IJune 2, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 14:  Kurt Warner #13 of the Arizona Cardinals is sacked by Patrick Willis #52 and Justin Smith #94 of the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter at Candlestick Park on December 14, 2009 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

This isn't your dad's 49ers.

Is that getting old, already?

Didn't think so.

While the statement holds true for the 49ers current offense and special teams, it's also accurate for their 2010 defense.

Greg Manusky's fortified unit has been the team's most consistent component over the last three seasons.

When the offense sputtered, the defense usually kept San Francisco in games.

When the special teams faltered, the defense would usually bail them out. Even when the defense bent, they typically would not break.

And when they smelled blood, the 49ers defensive standouts forced devastating, game-breaking turnovers.

At the heart of Manusky's resistance force is a philosophy based on mirror symmetry.

For instance, rookie linebacker Navarro Bowman's physique compares with perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Willis'.

As Manusky puts it, "From the stand point of 'do you want all your players strong, fast, good instincts, vision, all that,' yeah, everybody's got their best qualities. But from a mirror image standpoint, if I could have two Patrick Willis's, I'd take 'em."

Cutting more directly to the disguise, it prevents opponents from being able to read the defense.

Manusky says "I think it is across the board. If you have two inside linebackers that can play both the MIKE and TED, it’s the same thing. Same thing with the outside linebackers, I think your disguise is a little bit better with safeties as well.

"The best thing in this league nowadays is to disguise because the quarterbacks are so well-versed in the coverages, especially during the film sessions.”  

Linebacking is not only at the core of this smoke and mirrors defense.

They're some of the driving architects, as well.

Any 49ers fan worth his salt knows Mike Singletary was at the heart of the Chicago Bears' Monsters of the Midway defense of the '80s. The fire and passion he played with, and now coaches with, embodies the spirit of linebacking.

Manusky also played linebacker. The hard-nosed tackler played in 178 games from 1988 to 1999.

Since then, he too has brought that same intense attitude to coaching.

Former 49ers coach Mike Nolan named Manusky defensive coordinator in 2007. When Nolan was fired in the middle of the 2008 season, Manusky stayed.

The transition came with changes, however.

The complexity of the "Hybrid 3-4," which was meant to confuse opposing offenses, took many 49ers defenders away from their football basics. The system was immediately ditched as they adopted a simpler, more fundamental "True 3-4."

Justin Smith, who previously bounced from end to tackle, and all around the line, became more productive.

Additionally, the personnel packages coming on and off the field took far less time to straighten themselves out.

Manusky also made the adjustment of coming downstairs, from the booth to the sideline, which gave him the ability to communicate freely with his players between series, he said.

"I feel a lot more comfortable on the sideline," said Manusky. "I feel like a caged rat upstairs."

Now, as the team manufactures a dualistic unit to guard their house, linebacker figures to be the principle position for years.


Three-time Pro Bowl invitee Patrick Willis recently received a $50 million contract extension, and VP of player personnel Trent Baalke may have found Willis his doppelgänger this offseason.


Rookie Navarro Bowman.


The two players' similar physiques and speeds could present an interesting challenge for opposing offenses. For now, though, Bowman will compete for an inside linebacker spot and use his speed and athleticism on special teams.


Fittingly, linebacker might be the defense's deepest position this year. And the reflections don't stop at the inside.


The rest of the linebacking corps, as well as the defensive backs, will be flying around in the fog and mist, looking to make a big play or lay a big hit.


A doppelgänger for rookie Taylor Mays may be hard to find, however. The 6'3", 230 lbs safety is a rare specimen, and his blazing 40 time makes him a fairly unique defender.


Rangy Dashon Goldson stands close at 6'2", but his weight is a bit more slender at 200 lbs.


Micheal Lewis also comes in at about 6'1", 200 lbs. The unit will be hard pressed to find a place to hide the giant cover man, Mays.


One way or another, rest assured they'll adapt.


Don't hold your breath for a Stubblefield-and-Young-type combination. There won't be a 4-3 (or hybrid spinoff, or whatever) any time soon. Choosing defenders to fit a defense is no longer in San Francisco's cards.


As the defense has evolved with the game, so have they changed their color to camouflage their roster on the field.


Manusky refuses to pigeon hole a player into a role that won't work, be it for the player or the team. They're reshaping, if not breaking the mould.


This isn't your dad's 49ers.





The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.