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49ers Defense Poised for 2012

Posted Jun 13, 2012

With a defense as dominant as the 49ers had in 2011 returning all 11 starters, it’s only natural for some to expect greatness for the unit in 2012. But in the case of the stingy 49ers defense, you might as well leave your “best of all-time” hypothetical questions at the door.

Vic Fangio doesn’t want to hear it.

“We’re not looking to be the greatest defense in the history of the NFL,” San Francisco’s second-year defensive coordinator told reporters before Wednesday’s minicamp session. “We’re looking to be the best defense we can be in each and every game and not look forward and let the chips fall where they may.”

The countdown is on until the Sept. 9 opener against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. As he looks toward the rest of minicamp, training camp and the regular season, Fangio certainly expects his defense to be strong once again.

The 49ers were league leaders in several key defensive categories last season, including turnovers and turnover margin. Safe to say, Fangio knows the difference.

A reporter asked Fangio about the 28 turnovers his defense created in 2011, but the seasoned coach was quick to correct the scribe.

“Twenty-eight?” Fangio said with a laugh. “Thirty-eight. They’re hard to come by, don’t cheat us.”
Indeed, the 49ers tied with the Packers for most takeaways with 38 in 2011, but led the league with a turnover margin of plus-28 for the season. The unit also led the league in rush defense (77.3 yards allowed per game) and ranked second in scoring defense (14.3 points per game).

With a full offseason to collaborate with his players, Fangio says this group certainly has the potential to be the best he’s ever coached. It’s a strong statement given the stout New Orleans defenses he coached in the 1980s.

Due to last year’s lockout, Fangio said the 49ers had to pull some strings in the preseason to get more preparation in. In fact, the 49ers didn’t even game plan for their exhibition opponents in 2011. Instead, the staff used that time to install the defense and get the players ready for the regular season.

“We just showed up and played the game,” Fangio said.

By now, the 49ers know the drill. Fangio and his assistants have had more than six weeks of hands-on interaction with their players during the offseason program, something the coach noted as very valuable.

“It’s just enabled us to pick up where we left off last year,” Fangio said, “re-insert our defense to brush that off and then polish off what we had inserted to even a finer level of execution.”

Not only do the 49ers have the same starters and same system as last year, but they have some of the same key reserves at every level of defense. Whether it be Ricky Jean Francois in the trenches, Larry Grant at linebacker or Chris Culliver at cornerback, San Francisco boasts plenty of depth across the board on defense.

Combined with a sharp coaching staff that stayed completely intact on the defensive side of the ball, San Francisco continues to strengthen team chemistry for 2012.

“It is an advantage; it’s continuity,” Fangio said. “So much of playing defense is playing off the guy next to you and learning the play within a scheme with the guys that you’re playing with. Because every guy has little idiosyncrasies about how they might play a certain technique or an assignment, and the guy next to him or the guy behind him gets a feel for playing off of that.”

Case in point: the chemistry formed between Justin Smith and Aldon Smith last season. While Aldon Smith certainly deserves plenty of credit for his 49ers rookie record of 14 sacks last season, several of them were made possible by Justin Smith, who often commanded double teams and extra attention from opposing linemen. Aldon Smith often reaped the benefits and was able to wreak havoc in the backfield.

Though he’s heading into his 12th NFL season, Justin Smith has shown no signs of slowing down. Fangio specifically noted the level of commitment the All-Pro defensive tackle has shown this offseason, and said he expects Justin Smith to maintain his high level of production in 2012

 “He gives us tremendous run play and pass rush and his intangibles – from his leadership to his toughness – are off the charts,” Fangio said. “He’s definitely one of the top two or three defensive linemen in the league.”

Better yet, Justin Smith’s work ethic is rubbing off on his teammates.

“It always helps when your best players are your hardest workers,” Fangio said. “He definitely falls into that category and it’s easy for young guys to follow suit.”

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