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Smith, Fangio Change 49ers Defense


Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman dished out offensive playbooks during a small window in the offseason during the NFL's work stoppage.

Vic Fangio held on to his.

When defensive players arrived at training camp, the playbook waiting for them, though created from an unfamiliar source, ended up featuring a familiar face.

With the simple adjoining words "This must change," along with "0-1," there was the image of three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith with his career postseason record. At that time, Smith was the only San Francisco defender with playoff experience.

Upon receiving the two-to-three inch thick binder of plays, the message from the defensive coordinator was picked up immediately by his players.

"I knew they were about winning," said outside linebacker Parys Haralson, an underrated cog in the league's top-ranked rush and scoring defense in the regular season.

But did the players sense their new coaches had a sense of confidence, a swagger if you will?

"Exactly," responded Haralson, nodding his head in agreement. "We knew right then, their minds were in the right place, they believed in us. They were saying we had to win; it was something we must do. That's it really. It was, 'Let's win with what we got right now.' From there, we knew what we had to do and prepare to get ready, learn the playbook, then go out and perform."

The decision to place Smith's image on the defensive cover was as strategic as any pass-rushing scheme installed by the coordinator with 20-plus years of coaching experience in the professional ranks.

"We wanted to make a point here," Fangio said of placing a photo of Smith's gameface on the cover. "He's been in the league I think 10 or 11 years and he'd only been in one playoff game, and at that time I don't think we had anybody on the team defensively who had been in the playoffs."

Smith, in fact, had played one postseason game in 11 seasons in the league, a 2006 Wild Card loss as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals. Smith had to wait four seasons to get back to the playoffs where he's at now with the 49ers, one win away from the Super Bowl.

And while Fangio led numerous offseason meetings with the team's defensive coaching staff, Smith was putting his defensive teammates through the paces of a demanding workout schedule nearby at San Jose State University.

When the work stoppage ended and the 49ers defense was able to meet Fangio, it didn't take long for the unit to find results.

The 49ers won 13 games in the regular season, including a streak of eight consecutive wins. One of those wins came at the expense of the New York Giants, Sunday's opponent in the NFC Championship game.

That Sunday, the 49ers defeated the Giants 27-20 in a Week 10 home victory. The game also featured Smith batting down an Eli Manning fourth-down pass to preserve what was the team's seventh-straight win at the time.

To teammates, Smith's heroics, much like his game-saving forced fumble on the road in Philadelphia this season, have become routine. With Smith starting 171 consecutive regular season games dating back to his rookie season in 2001, the player known as "Cowboy," has saddled up to make the third-most consecutive starts by a defensive player and fifth-most amongst all NFL players currently.

Smith's most recent stretch of signature plays – bull rushes of New Orleans offensive linemen, and a sack on Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees last week over the Saints – will be enjoyed for years to come, too.

"It's always fun to watch him on film," Haralson said of Smith's bull rushes, especially one on Saints tackle Jermon Bushrod which saw the defensive lineman push the 315-pound lineman all the way back to Brees before grabbing the back of the quarterback's uniform nameplate. "That's what he does every game. It's not anything that shocks you. You just look at it like 'There he go again.'"

Smith himself isn't much for talking about himself.

"That's last week," Smith said facing a larger media turnout than regular season weeks. "I'm focused on this week, haven't really thought about too much to be honest with you."

Fangio, however, has thought about the big effort play.

"That's something we emphasize. That's something he's good at," Fangio said. "And yet, one of the reasons he's able to do that is because he has enough athleticism to go around a guy. In this particular case, he went through a guy."

Smith, the 6-foot-4, 285-pound lineman, will have to once again supply the same pocket pressure against Manning and the Giants. The 49ers All-Pro defensive tackle, who was voted second-team All-Pro defensive end in the same year, said Manning is just as good as Brees when it comes to navigating through traffic in the pocket.

"Eli is as good if not at better at recognizing when to step up and how to avoid the pass rush and how to extend the play," Smith said. "The receivers are on the same page (with him)."

By now, many have seen Manning's escape ability in Super Bowl XLII, infamously known for when he avoided several New England Patriots in the backfield to launch an improbable 32-yard pass to David Tyree to set up the eventual game-winning touchdown.

This year's New York squad is even more talented in the passing game, with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham emerging as one of the best receiving groups in the game.

"It's hard to focus your attention on one guy because they have three receivers," said Fangio of the Giants trio which has combined to catch six touchdown passes in two playoff wins over the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers.

In Smith's mind, the key to winning lies in turnover ratio and points off the board.

The 49ers were plus-four against the Saints in that regard, while Donte Whitner's forced fumble near San Francisco's end zone supplied the other end of Smith's in-order-to-win equation.

"The main thing is we've grown every week," Smith added. "I think our ability to create turnovers and get turnovers have been the keys to our success, like Donte's hit on the goal line set the tone, set the tempo for what we were going to do that day and it took points off the board."

Smith believes the 49ers can control their preparation and execution against New York. But all the talk about inclement weather is just a waste in his mind.

"I don't think any team can control the weather," Smith said. "It's going to be what it's going to be. You're going to call the same type of game regardless. I don't think too much of that's going to factor in."

Teammates expect Smith to play just as hard regardless.

"He plays playoff ball in the regular season," Haralson said. "That's what he does all the time. He doesn't care what anybody thinks. He just goes out and plays."

And in setting the tone for the 49ers defense all season, Smith has supplied the coaching staff with a great example in terms of the effort needed to win games.

"There was a lot of talk about the great history or tradition of the 49ers, but my message to them was there's been great history but the tradition was lost," explained Fangio of his reasoning behind Smith's playbook cover. "You can't go nine years without a winning season and think you have tradition. We've restored that.

"And along the way we've got him his first playoff victory and we're going to do everything we can to get him another one."

So while Smith might lend a hand as an extra blocker on offense, which he did last week against the Saints, it's really all about continuing the standard of play he set on defense since the first day of training camp.

The Giants might know the 49ers well from watching 17 games on tape, but the same can be said for the 49ers, too.

"They know what we're going to do. We know what they're going to do," Smith said. "It comes down to who executes the best.

"There could be a few trick plays but I think it'll be an old, 'Who's better.' I don't see them changing their game plan much."

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