When the San Francisco 49ers defense clashes against former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s Chicago Bears this weekend, they’ll be reminded of what they formerly had, but are currently lacking.
No, not Fangio’s boisterous personality and looming physical presence. But the consistency that the talented coordinator’s mind brought to the defensive side of the 49ers franchise.
During his four seasons with the 49ers from the 2011-14 seasons, San Francisco’s Fangio-led unit never ranked out of the top five in the league’s defensive leaders. Now they sit near the bottom surrendering 397.9 yards per game, good enough for 29th overall.
Sure, things have changed. The team is devoid of the myriad of defensive superstars that Fangio had to work with under his belt-including Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
But if you’re wondering how Fangio’s defense would have fared without his group of studs, look no further than his work with this week’s opposition — the Chicago Bears.
In a group devoid of many big-ticket names, Fangio has led the Bears defense to a respectable 14th overall ranking in the NFL. While that position may be hampered by a porous rushing guard, Fangio’s unit claims an impressive second spot on the league’s top-ranked passing defenses, holding opponents to just 214.5 yards per game.
His work with the Bears is an example of what the 49ers miss, and what they desperately need, in a season that has seen it’s share of defensive ups and downs.
Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s unit has certainly seen it’s fair share of positives this year. Like how his squad held Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense to just 200-passing yards in Week 4. Or when they iced Matt Ryan and the Falcons in Week 9, holding them to just 16 points while escaping with an upset win at home.
But the team has also been steamrolled by lesser teams in horrendous fashion. Remember the lowly Seahawks offense putting up 29 points against them two weeks ago? Or how about the 43-point thrashing at the hands of the Steelers in Week 2.
If you’re a fan of recognizing patterns, the team has almost always followed up an impressive defensive showing with a brutal meltdown the following week.
When the 49ers spurned Fangio for the head coaching vacancy over the offseason, they let go of more than just the most logical in-house replacement. They let go of someone who was at the cornerstone of what 49ers football was.
Tough defense, night in and night out.
San Francisco will most likely come around to their old ways again, as the team has always drafted in favor of the anchoring their defense.
Although they appear for a fleeting moment only to be sucked away by the harsh realities of the 2015 season, this year’s defensive triumphs should give the fans optimism for the future.
Don’t believe it? Then maybe take the star of the unit, linebaker NaVorro Bowman‘s word for it, who, after last week’s impressive game against the league leading Arizona Cardinals, said:
“I’m encouraged. Guys that didn’t have as much confidence in this team saw something today. I think it would kind of boost us. I know that we don’t have that much to play for, but we’ve still got a shot. Today was a demonstration of the type of team we have to respond after all the turmoil we’ve been through.”
Another team leader, safety Eric Reid, echoed Bowman’s sentiment:
“We can do what it takes to win games. We just have to come out and play like this consistently. We’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot all season. But, if we play like this, we can win some games.”
Unfortunately, consistency is what the 49ers have lacked. And consistency is what they gave up when they let Fangio walk out of the door.
There’s no telling how Fangio would have fared had he stayed in Santa Clara. It’s always easier to dream about what could have been, rather than look at what currently is.
But the 49ers are in for a tough match on Sunday. Not because of QB Jay Cutler, RB Matt Forte or any of the other offensive names. Rather, because of what Fangio has done with this revamped Bears defense that has them sitting with a 5-6 record in the NFC North.
While Fangio has shot down any notion of bitterness towards his former organization, one would assume that he’s chomping at the bit to turn in one of his defensive masterpieces against Gabbert and the 49ers offense this Sunday.
Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the San Francisco 49ers.