SANTA CLARA – It was defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s turn to explain the state of the Niners defense today. He said it has the potential to be the best defense he’s ever coached. He also talked about turnovers, and why he’s confident his players can continue to force them at a high rate next season. Finally, he spoke specifically about Aldon Smith and new cornerback Perrish Cox, and how they’re improving during this minicamp.
Here’s the entire transcript of Fangio’s Wednesday interview, courtesy of the 49ers. Enjoy.
Just having the luxury of an offseason program this year, what has it enabled you guys to do?
“Well, really it’s just enabled us to pick up where we left off last year, re-insert our defense to brush that off, and then polish off what we had inserted to even a finer level of execution. And we’ve added a thing or two here and there that gives us something new to work on.”
Is it dramatic what you’ve added?
“No, it’s not dramatic.”
Did your defense grow in complexity during the season last year?
“A little bit, but not a lot. I would say a little bit.”
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.”
Have you ever had another experience where you have all your starters back on defense?
“Yes, back in the, like you said, unfortunately it is a long time and I was in the NFL before there was free agency. So, just an example of it, when I was coaching the linebackers in New Orleans, I had the same starting linebackers for seven straight seasons, the same four guys (Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling). So, being in the league in the eighties and early nineties before free agency, that wasn’t uncommon.”
How much of an advantage is it to have everyone coming back and knowing the system?
“I think it is an advantage. It’s continuity. So much of playing defense is playing off the guy next to you and learning to 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 them or the guy behind them gets a feel for playing off of that.”
Last year DT Ray McDonald and DT Justin Smith played a lot of snaps. They didn’t show any signs of wearing down, but do you need to get more of a rotation there with some of the young guys, dispelling them on occasion?
“Possibly, but I don’t see it as urgent. A lot of that goes into with the defensive linemen, because they are the big guys on the field and they are the first to get tired just because they’re so big, is if you’re playing good defense like we were and getting a lot of three and outs, or give up one first down and get out, you don’t have a lot of the eight, nine, 10-play drives against you, they can play a lot. If you’re going three and out, or five plays and out, those guys can stay in there. It’s when you start getting a bunch of eight, nine, 10 or even longer drives going against you and you’re getting a few of those in the game, that’s when it starts to wear those guys and you would see more rotation.”
Were you reluctant to give up DT Will Tukuafu and DT Demarcus Dobbs to the offensive side a little bit?
“No, it’s for the betterment of the team and for the betterment of them professionally and their chances to making the team. There is a fine line there to where a guy has to have a primary position and that’s how he makes the team. And then if he can contribute in a secondary role, he does so that way. So, we have to be careful that we don’t spread them to thin and they don’t master a position on either side and then they don’t end up making the team. So, we have to be mindful of that.”
After what you guys accomplished last year, what’s the potential of you guys doing it this year?
“The same as it was last year. I don’t think we have anybody on our defense right now that should be descending in their career. We don’t have anybody that’s old enough that they shouldn’t play as well as they did last year, or even better. And I think Justin’s probably our oldest guy and I would expect nothing but even the same or better performance from him moving forward. And I feel that way about all our guys. All our guys are either very obviously young or in their mid-twenties, the middle of their career, so we should be as good or better.”
Do you intend, or do you want to bring LB Brian Banks in for a workout?
“I don’t know anything about that. That’s the first I’ve heard about that. That would be something for [49ers General Manager] Trent [Baalke].”
LB Aldon Smith obviously played so well so quickly last year. What can he do to improve and build on last season?
“He can become a full-time player. Last year, the season worked out for him basically the way I envisioned it. He got to play in our sub-packages, which he played I think 52 percent of the time over our 18 games that we played. And did a good job and that’s what I saw. And along the way he was getting a lot of practice at outside linebacker during each and every week. And he was, if [LB] Parys [Haralson], or [LB] Ahmad [Brooks] went down, he was going to go in and he had to go in and play about 20 or 30 plays last year at linebacker. So, we expect him to become more of a full-time player this year.”
What does he have to do to be successful as a three-down guy?
“Master the zone coverages, and where he fits and drops and picking up routes, etc. And also, one thing Parys was really good for us last year was playing the run, and he’s got to be as good, or better than Parys was at playing the run.”
Aldon was so effective in the role that he was in last year. Was there any thought of just kind of keeping him there as a situational rusher?
“No, if it turns out that he doesn’t warrant the job with his play then he’ll go back to that. But I think when you have a player of his ability you’ve got to do anything and everything you can to get him on the field more. At the same time I was very happy and pleased with what we got out of him last year. That was what I expected.”
For a defensive coordinator at this level of the game, what does it mean to have all 11 starters back from a defense that was ranked fourth in the league? That doesn’t happen much at this level.
“No, not at this day and age with free agency, but it did, like I said before, it used to happen a lot. It’s good. Our guys enjoy playing with each other. We have good players. They grew into playing with each other, playing off of each other. Being able to communicate in an advanced way as the season progressed and we would expect that to continue and take it to a higher level. Now, even though I think we should be better on defense doesn’t mean that we will have a better record. We could be better but not have the same record. It’s all relative.”
How much does it help to have this offseason that you didn’t have last year?
“Oh, it helps. It helps certain players more than other players. It helps Aldon Smith tremendously to come out here. He missed this as a rookie. He didn’t have OTAs as a rookie. So, this will help him make that transition to be a linebacker. Anybody that’s a rookie, or first year or second year player, this is invaluable work. And then even for the veterans it’s good. It gives them a measuring stick where they are conditioning-wise in football and anything new that we’re doing on offense and defense, it helps them.”
With the emphasis on the passing game during this time, what do you see from the cornerbacks and the depth you have there?
“They’ve done well. We feel we’ve got good depth there. We’ve got [CB Tarell] Brown and [CB] Carlos [Rogers], and [CB Chris] Culliver, [CB Tramaine] Brock. And we’ve picked up [CB] Perrish [Cox] from free agency. I think we’ve got good depth there. And we’ve got a couple of young guys that are trying to fight their way onto the squad. So, I feel good about our corner depth.”
What kind of player was S Michael Thomas for you at Stanford?
“He was a good player. Mike was a corner when I got there at Stanford, but we had a need at safety, and I felt that he would be better served for us at safety. So, he played safety in our base defense and then he played our nickelback in our sub-defense, which you play a lot in college. So, he was a nickel and a safety for us at Stanford, which is what he’s playing here. And Mike’s a good football player. He had a lot to do with the success that Stanford’s had here recently, and hopefully he’ll be able to transition that into the NFL.”
Does he have a bit of an advantage right off the bat because of his familiarity with the defense?
“A little bit, but really our defense is a lot different from what we played at Stanford because the game’s different. The college game is played on a different field. It’s played defending different style of offenses than in pro. There is some carryover. There is some calls that he would recognize and have a feel for, but not as much as you would think. It’s a different game.”
You had 28 turnovers last year. And turnovers seem to be kind of random from year to year.
+28, thank you.
“38. They’re hard to come by, don’t cheat us.”
Well, it doesn’t seem like teams maintain that from year to year. They don’t seem to do it again the next year. What do you hope to do to kind of replicate?
“We hope to match it and surpass it. That’s our goal. The point you’re making has some truth to it. Those things tend to kind of come in bunches at times. But the good thing we did last year most the time, I don’t believe we had a game where we got like six or seven of them. We kind of had a lot of games where we got two, three, maybe four. So, we were fairly consistent. There was only a couple of games we didn’t get any. So, I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to continue that.”
I think you mentioned last year that Justin Smith, you knew obviously he was good, but you didn’t realize he was quite this good. I don’t know how much film you watched in the offseason, but was he maybe better than you thought when you kind of looked again at what he did last year?
“No, because what I saw during our season I saw loud and clear. And he’s definitely one of the top defensive linemen in the NFL because he’s balanced. He plays the run and rushes the passer equally well. He can play inside. He can play outside. You guys know from watching us, we played him outside on occasion. So, he gives us versatility where we can line him up. He gives us tremendous run play and pass rush. And then his intangibles from his leadership and toughness are off the charts. So, he’s definitely one of the top two or three defensive linemen in the league.”
You talked about guys not being on the downside of their career. Obviously he’s getting up there in age. But as part of his conditioning, his commitment, does that, I guess, take some of his age out of the equation?
“No question. I’ve addressed this with some of the guys that are starting to approach that part of their career. I haven’t had to address it with Justin because he does it on his own. As you get older and play longer in the league, you have to take even much better care of your body. And he’s one guy you don’t have to emphasis that with him because he knows that and he does that and he loves to do it. So, I think many times guys can play another two, three years if they had taken care of their bodies better. But, as we all know and understand here, most of us things start to go down at a certain age that if you don’t stay on top of it, you get behind the eight ball. And he stays on top of it. I would expect that—I don’t see the end for him yet. And I mean looking forward two, three years. I think he’s still here and playing at a high level.”
Do you see the younger guys sort of following his example?
“I think definitely. It always helps when your best players are your hardest workers. And he definitely falls in that category. And it’s easy for young guys to follow suit. I think it helped Aldon last year. I think it helped guys like Dobbs. I think it’s helped guys like Ray and [DT] Isaac [Sopoaga] develop. He’s had an effect on everybody because of his work ethic and toughness that it’s infectious.”
I understand the idea that you can be a better team and not have the same record. Can you be a better defensive unit and not have the same stats as you did last year?
“That’s possible, it really is. A lot of it depends upon who you’re playing, when you’re playing them, how your whole team is playing. You alluded to the 28, you were going with the +28, not the takeaways. We only gave up 10 turnovers last year on offense. That plays a big part into how many points you give up in a game. Very seldom, I’m sure we probably led the league in field position as to where we started drives on defense compared to where the other teams did. So, our offense being so efficient and not turning the ball over, our kicking game having the season they had as it relates to field position, plays a big part in only giving up a low amount of points.”
You talked about the corners. How about Perrish Cox specifically? He’s new. He seemed to have a good practice yesterday.
“He’s doing well. We like Perrish. We’ve got him playing nickel and corner, which is two different positions. There’s no carry over from one to the other, from an assignment and technique standpoint. And he’s done well learning both those positions and we’re very happy to have him. He’s given us added depth and he’s going to push for added playing time if he continues the work that he’s showing so far.”
Everybody’s expecting a lot from this defense now. Obviously in your career you’ve been a part of some very excellent defenses before. Does this have a chance to be one of your best ever? Potentially, could this be the best defense that you’ve coached?
“I would suppose you could say potentially, but you’ve got to do it week in and week out. You can’t skip a couple steps along the way and that’s the thing we emphasis to our guys. We’re not looking at a 16-game schedule. We play one game at a time. I know you guys don’t want to hear that, but that is my philosophy. We’re not looking to be the greatest defense in the history of the NFL. We’re looking to be the best defense we can be in each and every game and not look forward. And then let the chips fall where they may.”