Vic Fangio struggles with the hand he was dealt

This is my Saturday column previewing the 49ers’ Sunday home game against the Eagles.

What is Vic Fangio supposed to do? Call plays while hopping on one leg?

Vic, try patting your head and rubbing your stomach in the coaches’ box. Say rubber baby buggy bumpers. Strike a pose.

The 49ers’ defensive coordinator is running out of options. He tried blitzing. He tried not blitzing. Neither has worked. The 49ers’ defense can’t stop the pass no matter what Fangio calls. Against Arizona last week, the 49ers gave up two touchdown catches and a 98.5 passer rating and sacked backup quarterback Drew Stanton exactly no times.

If blitzing and not blitzing failed against the Cardinals’ offense – ranked 15th in the NFL – how are the 49ers supposed to stop the Eagles’ offense? It ranks second.

Don’t blame Fangio if the Eagles score more than 30 on Sunday. Philadelphia has scored more than 30 points every game this season.

Fangio is the best coach on the 49ers. Fangio’s defenses were better than Harbaugh’s offenses the past three seasons. Fangio’s defenses were dominant. Harbaugh’s offenses were clever at times. It’s easy to be clever when there’s no pressure. Most of the time the offense had to score only about 19 points. The defense would win the game.

Fangio is six years older than Harbaugh. Fangio was the linebackers’ coach for the Saints and the defensive coordinator for the Panthers when Harbaugh still was playing quarterback.

Fangio is a throwback. He would fit right in on Vince Lombardi’s staff. Fangio comes from an era when coaches didn’t speak in code to the media, didn’t give empty praise to everyone, didn’t use 300 words to say mostly nothing. Fangio always says something and says it in the fewest words possible. He is plainspoken, straightforward, honest. Like a modern cowboy. He is above the bologna.

So when someone asked Fangio on Thursday what is the problem with the 49ers’ pass defense, Fangio enlightened us: “You can’t play good pass defense in this league without good pass rush. And they go hand in hand. You can’t have good pass rush without good coverage.”

“What do you think has been the bigger issue,” someone asked, “the pass rush or the coverage?”

“Both,” said Fangio.



Trying to pick which stinks more, the 49ers’ pass rush or the 49ers’ coverage, is like picking between blue cheese and gorgonzola.

Should Fangio take the blame for what the 49ers’ defense has become? Fangio has complete control over the defense – Jim Harbaugh said that in Arlington, Texas after the 49ers beat the Cowboys Week 1.

Is it Fangio’s fault the 49ers have bad pass rushers and bad cornerbacks this season? He doesn’t draft or sign players.

Trent Baalke drafted Jimmie Ward in the first round a few months ago. Ward played strong safety at Northern Illinois University where he made a reputation as an athletic, roving zone defender. Now he has to line up in the slot and cover some of the best receivers in football, has to use man coverage techniques that are alien to him. He’s out of his depth, a speck of dirt in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Is that Fangio’s fault?

Is it Fangio’s fault Chris Culliver couldn’t find a deep pass with a compass? He’s had this problem his entire pro career. Cannot turn his head and find the deep ball. A ruthless offensive coordinator would call deep passes in Culliver’s direction twice a quarter.

Like Ward, Culliver was a college safety whom Baalke drafted to play cornerback. Safeties don’t turn their heads to find the ball because the play is in front of them.

Is it Fangio’s fault Chris Cook has no technique and, as soon as he loses the receiver, he reaches out and hugs him? It’s like Cook is in love.

Is it Fangio’s fault Eric Reid’s helmet took out NaVorro Bowman’s knee?

Is it Fangio’s fault Aldon Smith drove his truck into a tree and charged admission to a party at his mansion like it was his parents’ house and they were on vacation, then shot illegal automatic rifles into the air to end the party and got suspended for the first nine games of the season?

Is it Fangio’s fault Ahmad Brooks is overweight, out of shape and has just one sack in three games?

Is it Fangio’s fault the other edge rushers Baalke acquired the last couple seasons – Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta – are bad edge rushers?

Really, what is Fangio supposed to do? Baalke dealt this hand.

Look at what Fangio is up against on Sunday. Ward will be on the field for 80 to 90 percent of the plays because the Eagles use a spread offense. The Eagles can go after him as much as they want.

Fangio also doesn’t have anyone who can cover Eagles’ running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles out of the backfield. McCoy and Sproles are two of the quickest tailbacks in football. Bowman could cover them, but Fangio doesn’t have Bowman. Fangio has Michael Wilhoite, Bowman’s backup, who doesn’t stand a chance against McCoy or Sproles. Fangio might have to replace Wilhoite with a cornerback, cover the Eagles’ running backs with someone quicker.

Fangio should be able to generate pressure early in the game – the Eagles already lost their starting left guard, center and right tackle to serious injuries. Justin Smith will line up across from the Eagle’s backup left guard on passing downs and should maul him in the first and second quarter.

But what happens in the third and fourth quarters if Smith gets tired? The Eagles run a no-huddle offense which prevents the opposing defense from substituting and resting the beef on its defensive line.

If Smith gets tired, it’s over. The Eagles will be able to take whatever they want from the 49ers’ defense. The 49ers’ need Smith to play the game of his life. He turns 35 on Tuesday.

Is that Fangio’s fault?

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

This article has 80 Comments

  1. Fun fact
    Kaepernick has gone from an accuracy percentage of 55.1% while under pressure in 2013 (worst among qualifiers) to an accuracy percentage of 92.9% in 2014(best in the league).

    1. Another fun fact, Kaepernick has the highest completion percentage on non-play action passes at 74.4% in the NFL. And the T-2nd worst completion percentage on play action passes at 50%.

      1. Kaepernick is not the reason we are losing. R defense is terrible and r coaches make zero halftime adjustments offensively. U would think they would come out with an improved plan for Kaeperick, not a significantly worse one. Yes, he had a monumentally bad game against Chicago but he seemed off from the first pass. No r problem is that we have moved away from what we do best, ground and pound, to finesse and we r not good at it. We r not the Eagles, or Broncos, we r the Seahawks (before they were even the Seahawks). Kaep should b throwing 16-20 per game, just like Wilson. We have lost r way.

        1. PFF has Kaepernick rated as the third-best signal-caller in football at this time-65.1 percent of his passing yards have come through the air, rather than being yards after the catch. PFF metrics has Kaepernick as the most accurate passer in the NFL so far-90% golden on passes when pressured. Impressive…..

          1. Give it some time and Grant grind on CK7’s a$$ as that is one of his favorite whipping boys. This piece sounds like Baalke is getting on the list.

          2. Razor, thanks for these stats. People can complain about Kaep’s interceptions, but most teams would drool if they had the chance to sign him. He’s definitely improved over last season and is likely to continue to. It’s the pass rush and, apparently, the oline. I say apparently because that seems to be Roman’s verdict. He seems to believe it’s easier to gain short yardage by throwing and, when nothing’s available and because the field is stretched, picking up a few with Kaep running. This has two problems: no surprise to our attack and putting our only good QB in jeopardy. If this continues, defenses are going to clobber Kaep and knock him out of games, especially with the new concussion protocol.

  2. I know Fangio says they are both equally to blame (pass rush and coverage), but for mine the lack of pass rush is by far the bigger concern. The issues in the secondary have mostly been mental mistakes which can be cleaned up.

    1. I agree Scooter. The pass rush is the bigger concern. At the end, the secondary can only cover those receivers for so long until the coverage breaks down.

  3. Grant ..

    I know this will seem to come from left field ..but
    in the off (really off) chance ..
    the Niners actually pull the rabbit out of the hat ..
    and win this one …

    How would you like
    your crow to be served ?

  4. I really liked Jimmy Ward coming out. As a safety that is. He seems to be in way over his head as a rookie trying to perform as a cover corner in the slot. Hindsight is 20/20 but if Baalke wanted a slot corner why didn’t he trade up for Jason Verrett who went to San Diego at 25? Verrett was a proven commodity . Baalke had a million picks and I gotta believe that he could have moved up with ease. Why didn’t he?

    1. Meh, the concerns over Ward are overblown in my opinion. Giving up the 3 TDs to Marshall has everyone panicking. But there are a lot of slot DBs that would’ve given up those TDs – leaving a 5’11” guy 1-on-1 against an excellent WR that is 6’4″ in the red zone was not one of Fangio’s brightest ideas. Outside of those 3 plays he’s been ok, for a rookie.

      1. 4th quarter/7 minutes – Cutler throws the back shoulder fade to the left corner, Ward failed to chop the extended hand of Marshall, which forced him a yard to the opposite shoulder, and out of position with no chance to make a play. Ward gets burned yet again, this time on a simple corner route, but the same physicality dooms him a second time as Marshall gets his hand on him.

        Scooter, did you really want Fangio to swap Culliver, Johnson or Reid on Marshall (although Reid did get worked on Bennett’s fade route for the Bear’s third touchdown) or double team him like they did Dez? You do realize the consequences of those actions, right? You’d either be leaving Jeffery against the smaller Ward, pulling Reid out of position or placing another rookie corner against the veteran receiver. Ward has to be more physical, and chop the wrist of the receiver as he extends to put his hand on him, and then move into position….

        1. I’m not suggesting replacing him for someone else. I just think leaving him 1-on-1 with a rookie was a mistake, though the play calling of the Bears had a lot to do with creating those matchups. And yes, I realise the consequence of giving him help, but Marshall is one of the best red zone receivers in the NFL. We shouldn’t be surprised by the outcome.

          Aside from those plays, which I agree he didn’t play well, he’s had some other rookie mistakes, but for the most part he’s been ok. Maybe he won’t improve and the commenters wailing and gnashing their teeth will be justified. But personally I think the concerns about him not being good enough are overblown and another example of fans expecting rookies to play like vets from the get go.

          1. If I was Donatell, I would bring in a Tae Kwon Do expert to teach blocking techniques and hand to hand combat. Your hands are weapons, and you cannot allow a receiver to get their hand extended on your body inside the Red Zone especially. More time in the strength training program, along with experience and I think he’ll settle in just fine….

            1. Exactly. Rookie mistakes, rookie learnings. Technique to clean up. He’s not the finished article.

              Thing is, aside from those 3 TDs he gave up to Marshall, how many other completions has he given up? There has been a few, but not that many, from my recollection. I might have to go away and do a run down of the completions he’s given up later on today. In particular I’d like to know how many 3rd downs he’s given up, either through completed passes or penalty.

              1. Thanks Jack – saved me an afternoon of film work! 2.67 catches a game. I know he gave up at least 4 of those to Marshall (3 TDs and 1 other catch). So in the other games he’s only given up 2 catches on average, and no TDs.

        1. 3 against the Bears. Which were the other ones? I’m guessing you are including one of John Brown’s TDs in there, but if so then you haven’t been paying attention during the week. That was a blown coverage by Reid, which he has admitted to. Brown’s other TD was on Cox.

          The Bears other passing TD was to Bennett against Reid. And Dontae Johnson was in coverage against Terrance Williams on his TD from Romo.

          So not sure where you are getting 5 from. Like I said, the 3 TDs against Marshall has people panicking. They are seeing every defensive breakdown as Ward’s fault.

  5. Just e-mailed Baalke this column along under subject line, “Fangio Struggling W/Baalke’s Awful Hand”. Baalke won’t read it, of course, but at least he’ll see subject line which questions the quality of his draft and free agent picks.

  6. Poor Vic.

    Funny. I don’t remember you writing anything like this about Roman last year when he was left with a receiving corps of Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore, Mario Manningham, and Jon Baldwin opposite Anquan Boldin for the majority of the season.

  7. Players matter. Take any defense and subtract…
    – Aldon Smith, perhaps the best pass rusher in the NFL, often in discussion for DPY.
    – Bowman, the best MLB in the NFL, often in discussion for DPY.
    – Brock, the 49ers best cover corner who was having a great camp.
    – Dorsey, last year’s starting NT and versatile run stopper.

    The factor…
    – Ian Williams still rounding into pre-cheap shot form
    – RayMac distracted

    And you have a falloff in defensive performance.

    Players Matter

    1. Below are (standard) chart values of 49ers drafts 2008-2013.

      Year – Chart Value
      2014 – 1,718
      2013 – 2,041
      2012 – 1,031
      2011 – 2,363
      2010 – 2,800
      2009 – 1,600
      2008 – 1,463

      Makes the horrible drafts like 2012 look not so horrible (though still pretty dang bad). Takes (a little) shine off the 2011 and 2013 drafts.

      In terms of chart value 2008 was awful. The 49ers selected Balmer, Rachal, Regie Smith, Cody Wallace, Josh Morgan and Larry Grant.

      Josh is the best of the bunch. Grant was a good fill-in, but got busted for PEDs.

  8. …Brooks is overweight…..and has just one sack in three games?
    One sack in 3 games is equal to about 5.3 sacks on the season and Brooks since becoming a starter has averaged 6.6 sacks per season. Is he really under-performing?

    1. Do OLB’s get to the QB by themselves or do they rely on the guys in front of them to do their job as well? Is the guy in front of Brooks doing his job?

  9. Let’s not forget to factor in that the defense is on the field way too much. We will see a better defense as soon as the offense stops three and out and turnovers.

  10. Good write-up Grant. I agree that it’s hard to choose between the two. Both units had made mental mistakes and been fairly ineffective as well. With that said, I would have to put the blame slightly more on the pass rush. We’ve never had a secondary unit that could fend for itself, and Baalke foolishly chose not to go after a decent pass rusher in free agency. I think Lynch and Carradine will eventually be great in this department, but both need at least a year to develop.

  11. Part of what could be ailing the pass rush may be the absence of Dorsey in the middle. How many lanes was he able to open up for a defender to get the QB?

  12. The jury on Ward is still out but he is another player that was chosen to play a position he did not in college. Whether a player can transition from a position change in college to the Pro’s always presents an unknown factor let alone just transitioning from college to the Pro’s period. It just seems to me that TB has been swinging for the fence’s trying to get a steal in the draft along with saving the picks required when moving up to get a more secure pick. It also seems he does far better in his talent vs relative to value of pick selections in the latter stages of the draft than the first. Possible because there is less pressure involved in the selections panning out. Seems like we we will all have to wait a few years before we can really tell how good a draft really was. What is clear is that the team is stuck with having to play a lot of inexperienced players of questionable talent levels.

  13. Fantastic article, really hit ever nail in the head! Two questions, can the 49ers hold on long enough until Bowman and Smith return? And in the event Harbaugh doesn’t return next season would Vic Fangio be the leading canadate to become the next head coach?

  14. If we could have the Jenkins & James picks back, and traded up for an authentic slot corner instead of Ward, then the defense would probably be doing a lot better. There are too many poor early draft choices on Balke’s CV. There are some great picks too, but when the 49ers make draft blunders they prove to be utter disasters, not just questionable. I’m also really surprised we didn’t get a solid CB in free agency considering that Brown and Rogers were let go. I imagine we tried, but the price was too high. Either way we have almost no CB depth, yet 6 good receivers. Balance doesn’t seem right. Maybe we should’ve traded for a CB not Stevie Johnson?

  15. Yes, I am still hoping for an 8-8 season.
    However, today is the watershed moment.
    My money says if the Niners drop this one,
    then we will finish somewhere below .500
    and – probably – miss – the – playoffs – yup.

  16. Harbaugh’s offense? You realize he has an offensive coordinator, right? You’re obsession with Harbaugh is juvenile. Grow up.

  17. Baalke brought in 4 press corners in Brock, Culliver, Cook and Johnson… so what does Vic do? Plays his “exotic” off coverage schemes 100% of the time and leaves his 5’10” rookie in the slot to get abused by Bear WR’s. One coach adjusted to the strengths of his players and found mismatches and the other didn’t. BTW: Brown, Rogers still stink and Whitner is still average and wanted to go home and get paid.

  18. And here’s another thought. How about using Brooks AND Lynch together at the same time? Manny Lawson 2.0 is getting all the snaps and now has a whopping 1 QB hit and 2 pressures. Genius!

  19. Wow, sounds like a Fangio apology piece. News flash, there isn’t a single defensive coordinator that picks their players, they make due with what they have. Despite no Bowman or Aldon, Fangio has 5 pro bowlers on defense. This is getting really sad folks. Grant should stick to facts, and avoid opinion pieces, he hasn’t earned that right. Every time he does, just sounds like a spoiled kid getting into the business because of his father.

  20. Curious, last year we were undefeated with backups. Maybe the key is for the offense to slow the game down, go back to actually running the ball, and keep the defense off the field…the look tired by second half.

  21. Anybody can coach pro-bowlers. Anybody can coach players with well adjusted temperaments and discipline.
    But it takes a GREAT coach to have success with the excuses you just listed, and I dont see Fangio meeting that ideal.

  22. With all that said Fangio hasn’t done to badly with what he has been delt. Both losses so far should be thrown at the foot of the offense. They have done not been able to stay on the field or provide scores that were not set up by the defense or special teams.
    Sadly with terrible offensive line play, they cant run the ball and with all the 8 man fronts they haven’t been able to break off many big plays.

  23. Generate a pass rush and the DB’s will look a ton better. It’s time to put Tank in the lineup. The risk of him missing an assignment is outweighed by the pressure he can put on the qb. C’mon Vic, this is an easy one.

  24. Let’s refrain from hitting the panic button just yet. Lord fangio & his minions are only two games in, there’s alot of football left to be played. Ward has the selective amnesia which lends itself to the tenacious zeal he’s shown while competing. Bodes well. I’m also intrigued by pass rusher lynch! He comes off as a possessed maniac playing in the sandbox with child like enthusiasm.

        1. Yeah, my bad. I thought I saw Cook in there early last week. In that case I wouldn’t make any changes. ; )

    1. My two sense: Start working Dontae Johnson on the right. Culliver is fatally flawed as a corner (no find ball and nut case).

    1. The media is trying to see how much bull they can write into an article. I highly doubt that a coach that allows his players to do practically whatever they want off the field would bar them from music and playing cards on trips.

  25. The only time Vic Fangio has coached against Chip Kelly, 2010 Stanford v Oregon, his defense gave up 52 points and 388 yards rushing. 257 of those rushing yards came from none other than LaMichael James.

    1. We are definitely in for a tough time today. If we don’t win, not sure we can overcome this. Up ahead: Broncos, Saints, Seahawks twice, Chargers, and Cardinals again.

      1. As Marine General Chesty Puller said when told his two Regimnets were surrounded by 10 Chinese Divisions at the Chosin Reservoir:
        “Yeah, we’ve got ’em right where we want ’em!”

    2. I think that really doesn’t matter George because that Oregon team is the that went to the BCS Championship game.

      1. That was the only loss suffered by Stanford that year. They were outscored 49-10 after the first quarter. Kinda sounds familiar.

  26. Grant, it is 2014. Please stop using YPG or PPG to measure offenses and defenses. DVOA exists for a reason.

  27. Eagles 3,7009 — Niners 0

    All is lost, we are doomed. I see Grant as the Niner’s head coach next year. He will be the first leader to win two Super Bowls in one year. Unfortunately a Disgruntled Jimmie Ward will find him in the parking lot and hit him over the head with a pasta pan, rendering him unable to write anything but Cody Fleener over and over on hie Eye-Pad (I know)

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