San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio answered questions today in Santa Clara, and while he said some things about Aldon Smith (they want him playing every down) and forcing turnovers (they expect to match or surpass the 38 takeaways they accumulated last season), there was a quote I found interesting about the NFL’s greatest evil — I’m talking about preseason games.
Is it fair to say the defense was fairly, I don’t want to say simplistic, but very basic and that allowed you guys to a) play fast and b) not really get hurt by the lockout so much?
“I think there are a few things to make point of there. One, one thing that we did in the preseason that I think helped us a lot on defense, in the preseason you normally spend a couple of your practices dedicated to the opponent in the preseason game, we didn’t do any of that on defense last year. We just showed up and played the game. What we did on defense last year during preseason game week was we just kept preparing our guys for the season. So, we stole two, three practices during those weeks that maybe would have been OTA practices at that time. And just kept working on our defense and kept preparing our guys for the season and did not worry about preparing for preseason games. And we just went out there and played basic simple stuff in our preseason game, which was two-fold. One, it allowed us to do that, what I just talked about, and it allowed us to evaluate our players.”
With that sort of experience, does it make you rethink how you do it in a conventional year where there’s no lockout and not game plan for the exhibition games?
“Well, I never have really game planned very much for exhibition or preseason games. And we will continue to prepare our team for the season.”
Fangio seems to be saying that for the 49ers’ defense, preseason games blind date practice sessions, in effect. The Niners don’t care about what the opposition likes to run and what their personnel situation is, they just hone their own skills in an unfamiliar environment. And even though the 49ers have a full offseason to work with, the plan will remain the same in the preseason games before the 2012 season.
What does this tell us?
1. The 49ers don’t have to trick teams to beat them.
The 49ers play a style that is both physical and fundamentally sound, and they don’t waste their time trying to get cute or play dirty. (So really, the 49ers’ defense was the opposite of Gregg Williams’ defense last season.) During the 2011 preseason, the 49ers were working on the kinds of defensive principles that, if mastered, cannot be defeated by gimmickry. That won’t change in 2012.
2. A challenged mind is a happy mind.
I’m probably going to keep harping on this all season, so prepare yourselves now. I think the main tenet of Jim Harbaugh’s coaching philosophy, or whatever you want to call it, is to keep the players mentally engaged. That’s why Isaac Sopoaga and Joe Staley each caught a pass last season, and why I saw Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman returning kicks with flags attached to their hips a couple weeks ago.
When you’ve played football for that many years, players surely start noticing patterns. Certain plays, angles and formations get repetitive. Since Fangio and the 49ers clearly don’t care one bit about the score of these preseason exhibitions, they don’t mind seeing the team read and react without the benefit of any added knowledge about their opponent. Doesn’t that make sense? Teams know their tendencies are on film, so they’re always trying to add new wrinkles (and since the 49ers’ defense is now considered fierce and intimidating, teams are going to try all kinds of things to fool them in 2012). Playing a team cold in the preseason gives the 49ers experience in dealing with the unknown and forces players to think on the fly.
3. No info overload, please.
While the coaches don’t want players getting bored, they also don’t want to clutter their minds with useless information. So what if the Texans like to throw screen passes to Arian Foster on the first drive of the game? Fangio sort of shrugged off the “simplistic” portion of the question, and it doesn’t seem like he agreed with the implication. With a defense as complicated as the 49ers’ is and the preseason opponents won’t be seen during the regular season (except the Vikings, who the 49ers play in the first week of the preseason and Week 3 of the regular season), it makes more sense for the 49ers to learn what their own teammates’ tendencies than what their preseason opponents are doing.
4. About that “evaluate our players” comment…
Why does a simple gameplan allow for easier roster analysis? For the players who are fighting to make the roster, every advantage helps. If a guy’s livelihood is on the line and he might look better during a preseason game if he’s able to jump a route he knows is coming, he’s going to use that information. While preparing and studying are no doubt encouraged, Fangio and the rest of his defensive staff also want to know which players have the best instincts and raw skills — not just who soaks up the most information in practice.
To switch sports for a second, Fangio’s attitude (which may be shared by several defensive coordinators for all I know) is much like what you’ll see from a pitcher in baseball. Why is this ace getting knocked around in Spring Training? Maybe because he’s preparing for the regular season by working on a certain pitch, or doesn’t want to show his entire arsenal when the games don’t count. That could be another reason why Fangio doesn’t care to gameplan for specific opponents: anytime you veer away from your normal gameplan, other teams get a peek inside how you plan to adjust to different situations. In keeping the 49ers’ defense on its toes during the preseason, it makes it that much easier to keep opponents’ offenses guessing during the regular season and beyond.