SANTA CLARA – Tuesday was a defense-dominated day in the 49ers’media tent – Vic Fangio, Larry Grant and Ricky Jean Francois all spoke at the podium, and I spoke one on one to Chris Culliver in the locker room. I asked each guy the same few questions, and here are their responses followed by my conclusions.
Question 1: How would you characterize this defense?
FANGIO: To me it’s in the eyes of the beholder.
GRANT: We came up with many names for ourselves, but at the end of the day we just want to go out and play the best we can.
JEAN FRANCOIS: It’s like a family. A lot of the guys goof around with each other, but at the same time we’ve got each other’s backs, we’re dedicated to the game and we love doing it. Everybody has a common goal. That’s the biggest thing.
CULLIVER: Relentless. We don’t take nothing.
My conclusion: I like Culliver’s answer. When I think of the Niners’ defense, I think of 11 players who are terrific tacklers and play better as the game goes on.
Question 2: In what way is your defense still evolving?
FANGIO: You’re always evolving. Each and every player is getting better at their position. Like I said, they’re getting to know our defense better. They’re getting to know the strong points and weak points of everything we call. Every defense you call has a strong point and a weak point and they’re getting better at understanding where it’s weak and how we have to make up for that.
GRANT: We always know that there’s always room for improvement. Just looking back at the tape that we had last year and the practices that we have now, there’s still so many areas that our team can improve together to make our defense one of the best in the league, if not the top in the league
JEAN FRANCOIS: A lot of the guys, like Dashon (Goldson), are learning more. He knew a lot last year, but now he knows everything now. He even knows (the defensive line’s) stunt calls.
CULLIVER: Just coming together as a whole. Keep playing together, keep understanding what everyone’s doing. Chemistry.
My conclusion: The defense never talks to the media about advanced concepts. When you ask them what makes them good, they stress their commitment to the fundamentals, to tackling and playing the right way.
Question 3: Who’s the most improved player on the defense?
FANGIO: I don’t know that anyone jumps out and grabs that title. I think Ahmad Brooks at times has been very improved, and then he’s had days where he hasn’t (improved). He needs to become more consistent. I think NaVorro Bowman’s very improved. He’s got a much better understanding of our zone coverages and things like that – things that aren’t easily seen by the naked eye. Dobbs was certainly moving in that direction, but going back-and-forth between offense and defense slows him down every now and then. There are a lot of guys in that category.
GRANT: From my perspective, Aldon has made leaps and bounds from where he was at this point last year to where he is now. He’s been doing a great job picking up on a lot of things that he really wasn’t sure about last year during the preseason and even during the season. My hat’s off to Aldon, and I’m pretty excited about what he’s going to do for us this year.
JEAN FRANCOIS: I can’t put a finger on it. Day-by-day it’ll be somebody different.
CULLIVER: I feel like I have improved myself, but I feel like a lot of people have improved. I know a little bit more than what I knew last year.
My conclusion: Chris Culliver is the most improved player on the defense from what I could see in training camp.
Question 4: Who’s the player your defense can least afford to lose?
FANGIO: All of them.
GRANT: There is none. There is no one player. Everybody, we feed off each other. Everybody has to have a certain role on this defense, all 11 players. If one player’s gone, it’s going to take a toll on our defense but, the good thing is, we got a lot of backups that can step in right away and play just as well as the starters.
JEAN FRANCOIS: We don’t want to lose nobody, but if you do you’ve got good guys behind us that can easily fill anyone’s spot.
My conclusion: Justin Smith is the player the defense can least afford to lose. He’s one of the only defensive linemen in the sport who demands a double-team, therefore he makes his teammates’ jobs easier.
Question 5: Who’s the fastest player on the defense?
FANGIO: I don’t know the answer to that question. Obviously it would be one of the DBs
GRANT: I can’t really say who’s the fastest. We got a lot of younger guys that a lot of people don’t know about that are pretty fast. I can’t really say. I don’t know who the fastest guy is.
JEAN FRANCOIS: I can’t say. It could be Pat (Willis) – a linebacker with DB speed.
My first follow-up question: Is it close?
My second follow-up question: You say you are the fastest player on the defense. Are you the fastest player on the whole team, faster than Ted Ginn Jr.?
CULLIVER: Ted’s the second fastest.
Here’s a Super Bonus Follow-up Question: As Ted Ginn Jr. walked through the locker room, I asked him if Culliver is indeed faster than he is?
GINN JR: No.
And he kept walking.
My conclusion: I believe Culliver when he’s says he’s the fastest player on the team. If Ginn wants his title back, he’s going to have to race Culliver for it.