Talking ‘big sub’ and ‘sub’ with Manusky

Niners defensive coordinator Greg Manusky talks about the 49ers’ different defenses.

When the 49ers faced the Seahawks on Sept. 14, they went up against an offense that did not have its top three wide receivers (Nate Burleson, Bobby Engram and Deion Branch). Furthermore, in pregame warmups backup QB Seneca Wallace, who was expected to see significant action at receiver, sustained an injury and was out for the afternoon. Three minutes into the game, the Seahawks lost starting wideout Logan Payne to a season-ending knee injury.

The 49ers stuck with their game plan. They played at least five defensive backs the entire way. The strategy seemed counter-intuitive. But here were the results:

–QB Matt Hasselbeck had the worst passer rating of his career. He completed just 18 of 36 passes for 189 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. (Passer rating of 42.5.) He was sacked once for minus-7 yards.

–The Seahawks’ biggest offensive threat was rookie TE John Carlsen, who caught six passes for 78 yards. Niners SOLB Manny Lawson did not play defense in the game, as his playing time was sacrificed for the extra defensive back.

–With a smaller defense on the field, the 49ers surrendered 169 yards rushing on 24 carries. Julius Jones gained 127 yards on 26 carries, including a 27-yard touchdown run. The Seahawks had 11 first downs rushing and 11 first downs passing.

–The Seahawks’ offense scored 23 points (not including a defensive touchdown, and they scored another touchdown on a 46-yard drive after a fluke blocked punt play). The 49ers won 33-30 in overtime.

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The 49ers have three main personnel groups for defense:

Base – four DBs with either of their 3-4 or 4-3 fronts.

Big sub — five DBs, generally with S Dashon Goldson replacing Lawson.

Sub – six DBs, generally with Goldson and CB Tarell Brown in, and Lawson and LB Takeo Spikes out.

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The 49ers have played a lot of big sub and sub this season. They rank 19th in the league in passing defense and 21st in run defense. (Sixteenth in passing average, and 12th in rushing average.)

Up until last week, the 49ers had done a good job of avoiding the big play. Through four games, the 49ers have given up seven pass plays of 25 yards or more, and four of them came against the Drew Brees and the Saints. They’ve given up only two running plays of more than 15 yards.

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Yesterday, I spoke with 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky about the team’s big-sub and sub packages.

Q: When you’re in the big sub and sub, does it make you more vulnerable, softer, against the run?

Manusky: “No, I don’t think it does. There are different situations and different game plans, based on the offenses we see from week to week – what we have to take away and what you don’t have to take away so much. It might be the receivers when you play Arizona, it could be the run game if you played a great running team. Each and every week you play football your game plan is not going to be the same. You have to game plan for what they’re doing. If you always want to play vanilla and basic, you’re going to find yourself behind the stick.”

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Where I believe the 49ers went wrong against the Saints is that they did not put enough pressure on Brees. On the first drive of the game, Spikes hit Brees as he was throwing for an incomplete pass. On third down, Patrick Willis came around to force Brees into a third-down incompletion. The Saints attempted 35 passes, and the 49ers brought five pass-rushers just eight times. On those plays, Brees completed 3 of 8 passes (one of those was a delayed blitz when Willis recognized a flea-flicker and tried to get to Brees, who threw a 52-yard completion).

On plays in which the 49ers sent just four men, Brees picked them apart. He completed 18 of 24 passes for 315 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

Q: Does having big sub or sub in the game limit what you can do blitz wise?

Manusky: “No. What it does is it expands it so a team has to prepare for base, big sub and sub. Sub’s always going to be there on a third-down situation the majority of the time. Teams have to work two different fronts. It’s different for them. For us, it’s what we normally do. They have to work a 3-4 defense, as well as a 4-2ish defense.”

Q: It seems as if you don’t blitz much out of your sub packages . . .

Manusky: “There was pressure when we played Detroit. We had pressure when we played that sub package. Sometimes you’ll get some pressure, and sometimes you won’t. Hasselbeck’s rating wasn’t very good. We did get after him. If you look at the situation, especially with Drew Brees and Hasselbeck, they aren’t guys who don’t get sacked. We know that. You still want to put pressure on them. Pressure is good. Even on the first third down with Drew Brees, we had pressure in his face, and he got rid of the ball (for an incomplete pass). That’s why he’s a Pro Bowl player, and Matt Hasselbeck is as well. He knows when to unleash the ball and get rid of it, and not create sack situations. We got to keep on forcing the quarterback, sometimes with a four-man rush, sometimes with a three-man rush, and sometimes with five or six. Those quarterbacks are good quarterbacks.

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Lawson did not see much action against the Saints before he sustained a hamstring strain that has also knocked him out of Sunday’s game against the Patriots.

Q: Early last season before he got injured it looked as if Lawson was turning into a very good player. How can you limit his role to just first downs, or in the case of the Seattle game, not even play him at all?

Manusky: “I’d love to have Manny on the field the whole time. It’s just the situations that arise from the other offenses giving you the personnel. You got to look at it from this standpoint: you’re taking off a linebacker and you’re always putting in a DB that has some better coverage skills than maybe Manny Lawson does. That’s how we game plan it. Manny’s a productive player and he keeps on growing. We got to get him into game situations where he’s matched up for pass rush and cover guys as well.”

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Bottom line: Every team in the league matches personnel groups. Every defense will put extra defensive backs on the field when the offense goes with three- and four-receiver personnel groups. That’s just logical, and that should not change.

However, against teams the 49ers don’t believe can hurt them against the run, they’ve also used a lot more of their big sub packages against base offensive personnel. It seems in those games, the opponents’ run game has been an annoyance more than anything.

The 49ers played mostly big sub against the Saints. That was the right call. It’s just that they could’ve done a better job of pressuring Brees and playing better football on the back end.

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OK, I’m with everybody else on the planet. I think Patriots coach Bill Belichick is outstanding. But I also know one thing: Belichick is a lot better coach when Tom Brady is his quarterback. When Brady is his starting quarterback, Belichick’s NFL head-coaching record, including postseason, is 101-27 (.789).

But when Brady is not his starting quarterback, Belichick’s overall record is a not-so-hot 43-59 (.422).

Patriots backup QB Matt Cassel will make his third start since high school on Sunday at Candlestick Park.

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