When Jim Harbaugh was hired in 2011, it was in a shortened league year handicapped by an extensive lockout. When the new 49ers head coach brought in his staff, they could not immediately get to work with the players. And even though Vic Fangio was working against the clock when things finally got underway, he somehow cultivated an elite defense.
The theme of last offseason was simplification. With the installation of a brand new system, neither the offense nor defense had enough time to dig into the complexities of the system. And because of this, one could surmise that the optimum production is yet to be seen.
The league-wide consensus seems to be that the 49ers defense will take a step back in 2012. The major argument is they could not possibly repeat the statistical anomaly of a season they had last year.
After Wednesday's press conferences in Santa Clara, it became clearer that the 49ers are adding layers on defense and becoming more plugged into what's happening schematically. Two of San Francisco's top defenders, Carlos Rogers and NaVorro Bowman, spoke to the media about what the defense has been doing differently this year.
Both players mentioned the intermingling of position groups, citing certain units working with each other and sitting in on each other's meetings.
Just looking back over some of the stuff I did wrong, technique-wise, working more with the inside backers. Kind of getting the knowledge of the whole defense in; and when I know when a guy is blitzing, to know where the blitz is coming from...the better you learn the total defense, the better I'll be at my position.
I think in all aspects of the defense, just understanding what the guys up front are doing and how they're leveraging, and then in pass coverage, understanding where my safeties are going to be and where I have help and what type of gambles I can take within the defense and I think that's going to help us out, make us a lot faster and make a lot more plays.
My biggest thing is the run game. We do so much different things, and the defensive line, it's kind of like their own group. And us having meetings with the defensive line, is really helping us, having that time to go in there with them is really helping me and Pat [Willis], with our alignments and just allowing us to get to the ball that much faster.
It slows everything down; he's talking to us in a way we understand...so us getting that extra time, going out there with Jim [Tomsula] and him really explaining to us what he wants his guy to do and how our alignment can help the guys in front of us. So it's all a counter-effect, and we can help each other if we just listen and key in on things.
This is something the 49ers did not have the time for in the 2011 offseason. However, introducing this to the players is only going to up their IQ on the football field and help them play even faster.
It is also good to see the players branching out and communicating with each other like this. This is a level of communication they have yet to explore and it could make them a more fluid and efficient unit on game day. The great defensive units communicate extremely well, and it will ultimately lead to less mistakes.
The 49ers defenders are learning the why aspect, by coming to understand the reasons for defensive assignments. It's nice to see the coaching staff emphasizing the mental aspect of the game, but trying to make their players more knowledgeable and well-rounded.
This is one of many story lines that may lead fans to believe the 49ers will actually have a better defense in 2012.