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49ers have struck gold with Fangio’s defense

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / October 30, 2011

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The Patriots defense may yet take shape before the end of the season, but if you want to get a peek at the style Bill Belichick envisioned for his unit, you should check out the 49ers.

They also are 5-1, and Alex Smith isn’t exactly the equal of Tom Brady at quarterback.

The 49ers are big and fast on defense. They still play out of the 3-4 but go to a four-man line in sub packages.

They play a majority of their coverages with one or two deep safeties with man coverage underneath, and are deep in the secondary.

They stop the run (second in the league) and defense the pass (77.7 passer rating allowed is fifth).

They get relentless pressure - 17 sacks, 101 quarterback hits, and 115 pressures, according to the tabulation of coaches - usually with just four rushers.

The 49ers have allowed just 16.2 points per game (second in the NFL to the Ravens), and are fourth in third-down efficiency (30.2 percent).

And they have done this facing four offenses ranked in the top half of the league, including the Cowboys (sixth), and the Eagles (third) and Lions (13th) on the road.

Oh, and did we mention the 49ers have done this with a new coaching staff after a lockout and with six new starters?

Not many thought that possible.

At the center of it all has been defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who is finally getting his moment in the sun after 25 years as an assistant coach in the league.

“I think he’s one of the all-time best defensive coordinators in the history of the league,’’ said first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. “I think that’s who he is. I think that’s what his legacy will be someday.’’

Fangio, 57, has been a defensive coordinator three times. But now he’s his own man.

He worked side-by-side with Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers for 16 years, including eight as his coordinator with the Panthers (1995-98) and Texans (2002-05). But those were expansion teams, and they played Capers’s defense.

Fangio was coordinator for Jim Mora with the Colts from 1999-2001, but the talent was not very good. Mora felt so strongly that Fangio was not to blame that Mora refused general manager Bill Polian’s advice to fire him, so they were all let go.

Under Harbaugh, Fangio has finally been given free rein.

“He’s a real quiet guy,’’ said inside linebacker Patrick Willis. “He just says what needs to be said and not too much more. He keeps it simple and puts us in great position. We feed off of him.’’

Fangio is the first to admit that general manager Trent Baalke has assembled a lot of talent for Fangio to work with.

“There’s a little bit of surprise that we’ve played as well as we have in spite of everything, but we’ve got a pretty good group of guys here,’’ Fangio said. “The one thing that helped us defensively is they were a 3-4 here before, so it wasn’t a major changeover as going from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Our scheme is a lot different, [but] we still had 3-4 bodies.’’

The group is led by Willis, who was quickly told by Fangio that despite his three All-Pro selections, he needed to be better rushing the passer and covering.

“I’m not the type of guy to take criticism the wrong way,’’ Willis said. “I think what he said we both knew, and I respect what he had to say. I can be better, no question.’’

Willis has been, but he’s not alone.

End Justin Smith is one of the more underappreciated players in the league, which comes from being on just one team with a winning record in 10 seasons with the Bengals and now 49ers.

“When you don’t make the playoffs, a guy like that can go unnoticed,’’ Fangio said. “But he is definitely having a Pro Bowl season for us. He does a great job of playing the run and rushing the passer for us, and he’s a leader. He kind of sets the tempo for our defense.’’

Smith’s game-saving forced fumble after chasing down speedy Eagles wideout Jeremy Maclin is already the stuff of legend in the Bay area.

But the 49ers have much more talent.

End Ray McDonald is putting together a Pro Bowl season. Nose tackles Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois have made everyone forget about Aubrayo Franklin.

In the secondary, Carlos Rogers, who signed from the Redskins, is the second-rated cornerback by after Darrelle Revis of the Jets. Former Bill Donte Whitner has played well at safety, as has Dashon Goldson, who worked out for the Patriots, and cornerback Tarell Brown. Third-round pick Chris Culliver was one of the keys to keeping Lions receiver Calvin Johnson in check.

The linebacking corps, in addition to Willis, has been outstanding. NaVorro Bowman, starting for the first time in his second season, has allowed Willis to flourish.

“The plays he’s had to make have been tremendous,’’ Willis said. “It has truly been a pleasure playing beside him. I think he has a bright future ahead of him.’’

Parys Haralson and Ahmad Brooks start on the outside. Brooks, finally healthy, plays the Rob Ninkovich role of putting a hand down in sub packages. And Brooks does it with length, strength, and quickness off the edge.

And then there’s seventh overall pick Aldon Smith, who has all 5.5 of his sacks this month as mostly a sub pass rusher. His role will only expand as the season goes along.

If there’s one shoe waiting to drop, it’s health. The secondary has had players go in and out, but the front seven, though thin, have remained remarkably intact.

“Yeah, we don’t even want to talk about that,’’ Fangio said.

If the 49ers can stay healthy, this group has a chance to be one of the league’s top units in its first year together.

“We’ve got pretty good team speed up front and I think our guys try to play the game the right way,’’ Fangio said. “We try to play physical, we try and play hard, we chase the ball real well. We’re just kind of an old-school defense mentality with enough of the wrinkles mixed in to help us be a competitive defense, and so far it has worked out for us.’’

Sure sounds like what Belichick and the Patriots hoped - and still hope - to be.


Eagles defense needs changes

Obviously, the Eagles had a lot of things to straighten out during their bye week. If they’re going to make a run, they must make some adjustments on defense.

The move by coach Andy Reid to shift former offensive line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator has backfired to this point.

The Eagles’ struggles show the difference between coaches who fit players into their scheme and those who tailor their scheme to the strengths of their players.

Cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have struggled playing more zone. They are better at man coverage.

Castillo has been using a wide-nine defensive technique in which the two ends line up beyond the tight ends. That certainly helps with the pass rush, but when you are weak at linebacker, as the Eagles are, you’re exposed in the running game (123.8 yards per game).

“There’s some things that you’ll see this week,’’ said Castillo. “I can’t get into the particulars, but you’ll see some adjustments that will help us.’’

The Eagles better show it quickly against the Cowboys tonight, or it could get really awkward in Philadelphia. The team will induct the late Jim Johnson, the team’s former defensive coordinator, into the team’s Honor Roll at halftime.

Under Johnson from 1998-2009, the Eagles had one of the league’s most feared defenses. That hasn’t been the case under Sean McDermott, who was fired at the end of last season, and Castillo.

“[Johnson] was an awesome coach, man,’’ said defensive tackle Mike Patterson. “He always inspired guys to go out there and play hard, and that’s why I liked him.’’

If the Eagles aren’t playing better on defense against the Cowboys, the fans are going to let them hear it.


New rules rile McCarthy

Packers coach Mike McCarthy, like Bill Belichick, prefers to have his team practice in pads during the season, at least until the later stages. But the new collective bargaining agreement seriously curtailed that.

Teams are allowed to practice in pads 14 times during the 17-week regular season, and only three can happen in the final six weeks. Teams are allowed to practice in pads twice in one week, but only once in the first 11 weeks.

McCarthy, whose defense has dropped from fifth to 23d this season, shed some light on the challenges the change has presented in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“I normally would go every Wednesday and Thursday early in the season [in pads],’’ said McCarthy. “That’s what I lost.

“In fairness, you need to take the full season and crunch the numbers. I think the thing you really have to take a look at is tackling, blocking, and leverage. How many high blocks compared to the past? That’s what we do every week as far as grading [players].’’

McCarthy was told by league officials that the Packers and two other teams had conducted the most practices in pads last season (guessing the team at Gillette Stadium was one of the others).

“We had 25 last year,’’ said McCarthy. “They came back with 14. I was, like, ‘What? How is that a compromise?’ ’’

McCarthy said the biggest adjustment has been with the coaches.

“We’ve always coached it hard,’’ he said. “We’re coaching harder than ever now.’’


Merriman’s prospects dim

Even before Buffalo linebacker Shawne Merriman was placed on injured reserve (Achilles’ tendon injury), he didn’t have much of an impact; the Bills had a league-low four sacks. “He had not been playing up to what any of us thought, him included,’’ said coach Chan Gailey. “So we all felt like it was in the best interest to let him try to get this thing completely well, and we’ll just plug in some other guys and see if they can go do it. I don’t know how it’ll work out. We’ll just wait and see.’’ Merriman, 27, was paid $6.95 million by the Bills last season, and will earn a roster bonus of $1 million next March. He’s due to get $4 million in base salary in 2012, $3 million of which is guaranteed. It’s not clear whether the team will be on the hook for the 2012 money. In any event, it appears the lights are out for “Lights Out’’ in Buffalo. It’s doubtful Merriman will be back. Spencer Johnson, Danny Batten, and Arthur Moats will replace Merriman by committee. The Bills also signed Antonio Coleman, and he’ll join the committee once he’s up to speed with the defense. Batten (6-4, 242) was a sixth-round pick in 2010 and is the best fit to grab the job.

Nickel package

1. If you don’t think it’s possible that Antwaun Molden is better than Leigh Bodden, then you weren’t watching closely enough. Whatever you perceived Bodden to be did not match reality. Names don’t count. Production does.

2. Say a prayer for the daughter of former Patriots cornerback Darius Butler, Milan, who underwent heart surgery last week in Fort Lauderdale. The Panthers are giving him all the time he needs.

3. The Dolphins brought this on themselves. That team quit last year in the regular-season finale at Gillette Stadium. Real big shock they’re doing it again. Tony Sparano never should have been brought back.

4. Really tired of players using the lockout as an excuse for their injuries, as Redskins tight end Chris Cooley did last week. There are plenty of doctors and rehab specialists available across the country. Find one. That’s what everybody else does. Goes to show just how pampered players are.

5. Don’t think there could be a better hire for general manager of the Raiders than Packers director of football operations Reggie McKenzie. He fits Al Davis’s progressive approach to hiring, and McKenzie, after 18 years with the Packers, needs to spread his wings. But he may need to be pushed.

New England update

As we mentioned in August, camera crews from “60 Minutes’’ were following former Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich during training camp as he tried to make the Giants. That segment will air tonight. Herzlich, who overcame bone cancer to make it to the NFL, has played in all six Giants games on special teams and is tied for sixth with three tackles . . . New Bedford native and former Dartmouth High star Jordan Todman got a cold dose of reality when the Chargers released the sixth-round pick Oct. 22 and he went unclaimed on waivers before being signed to the Chargers’ practice squad. Todman was initially released in favor of practice squad running back Curtis Brinkley, likely because Brinkley knew the offense better . . . Todman’s former UConn teammate and former North Attleboro standout Anthony Sherman will be inducted into the Attleboro Area Football Hall of Fame Nov. 22. A rookie with the Cardinals, Sherman has played in all six games, including three starts. He has five catches for 51 yards and four special teams tackles.

By the numbers

0: Fumbles lost by the Bills. They are the only team without one.

4: Consecutive losses in West Coast games by the Bengals, who visit Seattle. They have lost 11 of their last 12 out there.

7: Rushing touchdowns for Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, tied with Vince Young for second most by a rookie quarterback. Former Patriot Steve Grogan set the league record of 12 in 1976.

82: Points the Texans have outscored opponents by in the first half (117-35).

Short yardage

The Chiefs, after starting 0-3, could be tied for first in the AFC West at 4-3 if they beat the Chargers. That’s what happens when you play against Donovan McNabb, Curtis Painter, and Kyle Boller. And then the Dolphins and Broncos come calling. Must be nice . . . Jacksonville’s defense has held five of its seven opponents under 300 yards and has allowed only 7 points in the last five quarters . . . You can only imagine the looks Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron got in the coaches meetings once it was pointed out that he gave Ray Rice only eight carries in the 12-7 loss to the Jaguars. “He’s got to get more than eight carries,’’ coach John Harbaugh said. “Eight carries is never going to be a winning formula for Ray Rice.’’ . . . Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis has 11 catches and no touchdowns since receiving a new contract worth $34 million ($17 million guaranteed). “Anytime you’re hearing stuff like that, you’ve got to perform or it will continue,’’ coach Jack Del Rio said . . . NFL Network and ESPN showed poor judgment in airing the Drew Rosenhaus-produced Terrell Owens informercial/workout last week. Rosenhaus admitted he was trying to manufacture buzz . . . If you’re looking to draw inspiration from today’s NFL players, check out the book “Insightful Player’’ by Chrissy Carew, the daughter of late Concord-Carlisle football coach Walter Carew Sr. Among the athletes profiled are current and former Patriots Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty, Heath Evans, Jarvis Green, Steve Grogan, Steve Nelson, Andre Tippett, and Benjamin Watson. For more information, go to

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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