Through the first two weeks of the 2012 NFL season, the 49ers faced a pair of passing attacks in the Packers and Lions that put the team in a position where they played primarily in their nickel and dime defenses. They ran a few base 3-4 formations, but for the most part they had extra defensive backs on the field.
The last two weeks against the Vikings and Jets, we have seen the 49ers run more of their base defense, as they face offenses that are generally more run-first. Adrian Peterson had a decent enough day, but otherwise the 49ers have had little trouble shutting down opposing running backs.
Vic Fangio spoke with the media yesterday (transcript below) and he had a chance to discuss the matchup the 49ers face against the Bills three-wide receiver formations, as well as the two-headed running back rotation of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Although Jackson entered the season as the starter, a knee injury provided Spiller with an opportunity to show what he can do.
Spiller injured his shoulder in Week 3 and was limited last week against the Patriots. This leaves both running backs at less than 100%, which has the Bills utilizing both to try and prevent to much wear and tear on either. I asked Brian Galliford from Buffalo Rumblings about the running back rotation and he said:
Chan Gailey seems committed to splitting the reps, especially while both players are less than 100 percent. Jackson is still only three weeks removed from a sprained LCL, and will wear a knee brace for the foreseeable future. Spiller has been limited by a sprained AC joint. One of my bigger criticisms for Gailey has been his inability to get both backs to produce in this offense; it's always been one or the other. Until he figures it out, the carry split seems to prevent both backs from getting into a rhythm more than it makes the offense more difficult to prepare for.
The key in this game could prove to be the 49ers outside linebackers. Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks will be on the field for most of the game, likely in a lot of nickel defensive end work. They will have a chance to bring the pass rush, but as Vic Fangio pointed out, they also will need to maintain some measure of discipline on the edges. The cornerbacks will be part of maintaining that edge, but if the Bills are spreading things out a bit with three-wide and sending their receivers far enough north of the line of scrimmage, Smith and Brooks will be the ones expected to maintain those edges almost exclusively.
This is not some kind of shocking revelation, but rather is just a statement of fact for Sunday's game. For Aldon Smith in particular, it is one more relatively new challenge he will face. Adrian Peterson is the best running back the 49ers have faced thus far, but C.J. Spiller brings a whole different skill set. It remains to be seen how Spiller's sprained shoulder will impact him, but if healthy, his speed will be a solid test for this rush defense.
Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio
Press Conference - October 4, 2012
San Francisco 49ers
You played a couple teams earlier in the year that liked to spread you out, a lot of multiple receivers. Are the Bills the same way?
"They play a lot of three wide receiver formations, yes. They do."
Is that similar to what the Packers and Lions did?
"In some degrees, the formations are similar. These guys run maybe more of a complete offense out of it. They're running it a good bit, and throwing it a good bit. So, it's more of a balanced run/pass ratio with these guys."
Is that the challenge this week, that when having the nickel and dime out there and they have to be able to stop the run?
"That's part of it. And we may be able to stay in some of our base defense, too, some."
What about DT Ray McDonald? He doesn't get a lot of tackles, but how can you just measure his impact on the game outside of the box score?
"Well, he has a tremendous impact on our game, any game, and on our defense. When teams have a hard time running against us, he's right in the middle of all that. Whether he's getting credited with a tackle or not is irrelevant. He's the one holding the point up front there, and allowing our linebackers and other people to make that play. He gives us great pass rush in our nickel stuff. And he's a very, very, very important part of our defense."
A couple games ago, LB Aldon Smith shed the block, he played up, and shed the blocker and ran down and he did it again against Jets QB Tim Tebow. Being able to stand up and get free, is that something you saw him capable of doing at Missouri and that he did a lot of at Missouri? Or was it something he had to work on once he got here?
"He didn't do any of that at Missouri. He was never standing up at Missouri. And as a matter of fact, he played about half the time, or I would say at least 40 percent of the time, somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of the time, he was a defensive tackle for Missouri. So, he always had his hand down. So, you never were able to see that on film. You had to just project that."
In terms of being able to coach that though, what are some of the things that, in terms of getting the kid to be comfortable in that standing up and moving laterally back and forth, what are some of the tips you give someone like that?
"Well, number one he has to have the raw ability to do it and he does. He's athletic enough and he's smart enough to learn the position and understand the position. That's a good starting point. And then two, you just give him enough repetitions at it, both on the practice field and in the film room, to where he learns it and understands it. And then if he's good enough talent-wise to do it, he can do it. In this case he is. So, he's learned well both on the field and in the classroom, and he's talented enough to transfer it into a good result."
It would seem that, as a down lineman, he'd go straight ahead and keep his eyes one place. Outside space, you'd have to get him to look around a little bit more. Is that true?
"Yeah, that's the hardest thing for a guy that's transitioning from a defensive lineman to a linebacker position, outside backer in this case, is figuring out if it's a run or pass number one. And number two, they're not always coming forward. If it's a pass they've got to go backwards. So, that's always new and uncomfortable for those guys. And that's really the biggest sticking point for those guys is figuring out if it's a run or pass and going backwards when they have pass responsibility."
When you talk about the balance in the Bills offense between run and passing game there, is RB C.J. Spiller's more of an outside tackle guy and how do they mix that in with the three wide receiver sets? How do they use that?
"Well, he'll be in there some as the running back and you have to be really aware when he's in there because he is extremely fast. He's got four-three speed. He's lightning quick. We've got to have good edges. We've got to keep him hemmed in. He is really, really fast. The guy's averaging close to nine yards per carry and that's a reflection of him breaking some big ones. And he's a big play threat every time he touches the ball. He's like a punt returner. They use him well and [RB Fred] Jackson is a different back, but in his own right is just as good, but just a little different style."
What's Jackson's style? Is he between the tackles more?
"A little bit. He's more shiftier, more of a standard back where he's got good cutting ability. More of a little bit of a downhill runner, but both of those backs are really, really good. These guys are averaging 29 points a game. And the most they've scored, I think, was 35. So, every game they've been 24, 28, 35, 28. They're average, it's right there. It's not like they had one big game that inflated their stats. They're averaging 29 a game and there's no accident why they're getting it. They've got good skill players, including the quarterback."
Speaking of the quarterback, what are some things you've seen in QB Ryan Fitzpatrick? People say he's underrated. Some will say he's not underrated. What have you seen?
"I think he's a good player. I think he's a competent NFL quarterback. He makes good decisions. He gets a quick read on the defense. He gets the ball out pretty quick. He's only been sacked four times in four games. He's a good scrambler. He's carried the ball 15 times in these first four games and none of them are called quarterback runs. It's him scrambling. He'll buy time in the pocket. He'll create some of the same problems that [QB Christian] Ponder created in Minnesota with the scrambling ability. So, we'll have our work cut out with him. I think he's a good quarterback."
It seemed like Fitzpatrick took chances down the field?
"Not really, no. He's thrown seven interceptions, but two of them were when they were trailing late in the fourth quarter. He just took a chance trying to make a play. One was a tipped ball that got tipped up in the air, no fault of his. He did have a ball that he under-threw once that got picked. I don't see a guy that's gambling with the ball at all. I think his seven interceptions in four games is a very misleading stat, unless you look at them and totally see the circumstances."
How is his ability to throw and what is his accuracy on the run?
"Good. Good. They'll boot them a fair amount of the time. And he'll get out outside the pocket in his scrambling. And he's a threat to run and throw then."
How often do they go to four wide receivers?
"Very little, at this point in time. They always could."
Is the crowd very much a factor for your pass rushers when you're at home? How compared to when you play at a dome like in Detroit or what New Orleans must be like?
"You mean does it help them, the noise?"
"I think it helps a little bit, but I do think that's a little overrated. When I could remember when I was coaching with the Saints and everybody talked about our huge advantage to pass rush there because of the crowd noise and the turf, and I looked at it one year at the end of the year and we had as many sacks on the road as we did at home. So, it is an advantage. It makes the offensive linemen uncomfortable. I don't think our stadium gets as loud as a dome stadium does, just because of the obvious reasons. And our stadium is a little more spread out. It's not right on top of you. So, the crowd noise is there. It's prevalent. It helps. But, I don't think it's like it is some of the other dome stadiums."