49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio chatted with the media Friday before practice and had some interesting comments. The most pertinent for our purposes is that he indicated he would not be comfortable with Patrick Willis playing on Sunday if he does not practice this week. The concern is that with a hamstring injury, the risk of re-aggravation is great and without seeing a player run full out, it is not a worthwhile risk to just roll him out and hope he'll be fine.
A significant issue for Monday's game is the Steelers dynamic receiving duo of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Wallace entered the season as the big play guy, but Antonio Brown has emerged as a beast in recent weeks. Wallace is still a threat, but Brown has been the more dangerous of the two receivers. I'd imagine part of that is due to coverage rolling over on Wallace, but even still, Brown is taking advantage of his opportunities.
Ben Roethlisberger was able to get in a limited practice today, which would seem to be an indication he will play on Monday. Even after his injury last week, Roethlisberger was able to connect with Antonio Brown on a deep catch and run. Although Roethlisberger might not be able to scramble as much this week, he remains a significant threat in the passing game, even if hobbled by the ankle injury.
Given all that, how would you defend Wallace and Brown? You've still got to deal with Heath Miller and Hines Ward in the receiving game so it's not like you can just double both Wallace and Brown. Thoughts on how to address the Steelers receivers?
Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio
Press Conference - December 16, 2011
San Francisco 49ers
Coach, how do you prepare for the Steelers team when you don't know if Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is going to play or not?
"Well, mainly you just prepare for their offense. Their running game's not going to change a bit, no matter which quarterback is playing, and I don't think their passing game will change a lot. What might change is their play selection, occasionally, but I think they'll just get out there and run their offense no matter who their quarterback is."
Would you expect more quick passing from a guy who might not be able to move around the pocket?
"If Roethlisberger's the quarterback?"
"Well, probably, but I don't know that it'll be quick passing. He might just get it out of his hand a little quicker. I don't think they'll change their passing game a whole lot."
Ben's a really tall quarterback. With this injury, do you think it'll be a little easier for you guys to take him down because he is really big and solid?
"Well, I'd say a big part of his strength is he's so hard to tackle and he creates on the run. With Roethlisberger, you always have to defend two plays, the play they call in the huddle and run and then the play he creates after he doesn't like the initial play. I would imagine that if he does play, his creativity will be down a little bit, but I really believe if he plays, that means he's ready to play."
Their wide receiving corps, as far as the quickness and the speed, is that unique to what you guys have faced thus far?
"Yeah, they're a very fast group. And it's not just one guy, 17 [Steelers WR Mike Wallace], 84 [Steelers WR Antonio Brown], those guys can fly. They've got good receiving tight ends. These guys are running the ball a lot better than they have in recent years, I think. But it's just been overshadowed because their quarterback is so good and their receivers are so good that they've used those guys, which they should do. But they are running the ball much better than they have two, three years ago."
What's Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall like?
"Strong back who will slam it up in there. Gets a lot of the three, four, five-yard runs and then they keep pounding away at you, and he'll break one. He likes to bounce the ball outside a lot. They really don't have many runs that are designed to go outside, but he takes it outside. So, you've got to do a really good job of being firm inside on him and not let him get outside."
With their personnel groupings, do they dictate a lot of nickel from the defense?
"They could. They do like to play a lot of three wide receiver sets on the early downs. They'll also sprinkle in some four wide receiver sets and even occasionally there'll be five wide receivers out there. So, they will dictate what type of game it is, but they'll also, even while they're doing that, play their two tight ends. They even have a personnel group that they play about 20 percent of the time, three tight ends with one back and one receiver. So, they have a very multiple offense. The coordinator there is a guy that I know, I've worked with in the past and he's done a great job with these guys of using all the tools that he has, creating a very diverse offense. One, you've got those fast receivers that you're always worried about, then they'll slam it up in there with the running game and they use their three tight ends also. They've probably got the best group of blocking tight ends in the league."
Who's your number four cornerback right now?
"Four? Well, right now we're working with [CB] Shawntae [Spencer] out there still."
Scheme-wise, are they similar to anybody you've faced so far this year?
"They're kind of similar to Arizona in some ways, with the coaching backgrounds. [Steelers offensive coordinator] Bruce [Arians] was on the staff there with [Cardinals head coach Ken] Whisenhunt and they kind of kept the same offense, but Bruce has put his own stamp on it now and I think made it even better with all the tools that he's had."
Vic, is there a thread that kind of connects these Steelers to past? I mean they're one of the premiere franchises if you look at all the Superbowls and it seems like there's a personality through the decades that they've maintained. Do you see that at all?
"Well, they like to play hard and physical. Even though they've become, obviously with a great quarterback and that receiving corps that they have, they're going to throw the ball maybe more than they did ten years ago. But, that's just because they have the ability to do it. But, they still run the ball and Bruce isn't averse to handing it off a lot of times. He would like to pound you if he can, but he's also going to through deep. This is a classic NFL team where it's run, run, run, throw deep. Run, throw deep. And they do a great job with the screen game also. They probably throw more screens than anybody we've seen this year."
What are some of your earlier memories of Steelers back when you lived in Pennsylvania growing up and just sort of those great teams of the 1970s?
"Well, obviously they were great. I can remember coaching against [Former Steelers head coach] Chuck Noll in the mid-80s when he was still the head coach there and I was with the Saints. So, I've been going against these guys for a while and they've always been a good team. They've had their lolls just like all franchises do at some point, but they've always been a tough physical team. They try and take pride in that. They try and mirror the mentality of the city."
We've asked a lot of questions about what's gone wrong with the 49ers red zone offense, what's gone right with the 49ers red zone defense?
"Well, just like everything else that we've done well, we've got good players that are playing with the right technique and playing hard, and they're executing the defense. It's not a mystery. And we've done a good job of playing the run. Most good red zone offenses start with a good running game and we've been able to play the run down there well. And then when it comes time to pass, we've done a good job with covering up the receivers and getting some good rush. It's just a combination of good players doing the right thing."
How did LB Larry Grant perform in the Arizona game?
"He did fine."
A lot of people saw those passes through the middle of the defense and thought that maybe LB Patrick Willis could have had an effect on those. Was Grant involved in any besides the missed tackle on Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald?
"No not really."
Do you expect that Larry will have to start again on Monday?
"It hasn't been decided yet, hasn't been decided yet."
Is CB Chris Culliver OK?
Would you be comfortable playing Patrick if he doesn't practice this week?
"Probably not. When you're dealing with a hamstring injury, the guy has to show that he can run."
How's Culliver progressing throughout the year? Do you see Culliver playing with a little more confidence and growing in that role?
"He's done a good job. Obviously with a young player, the more you play, the more confident you get, the more you understand the defense, the more you learn about the league and the different offenses. So, naturally you get more confidence as you play more, not only in what you're doing but what the whole defense is doing. He's done a nice job for us."
Any concern about some of the long passes you guys gave up last week, since you haven't done that much this year but last week there was a few?
"Well, there's always a concern, particularly now when you're following that game with the Steelers, who throw the ball deep by design and have a bunch of fast receivers. It's always a concern, but I don't see it as an epidemic coming."
Vic, have you seen enough of your defense with Patrick in it that if he doesn't play these next few games that you feel good with him resting for the next few weeks going into the playoffs?
"Well, whenever Patrick's ready to play, whether it be this week or next week, he'll be ready to play and he'll go right back in there. I really don't look at it as resting him, he's rehabbing. So, when he's healthy he'll be playing."