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49ers Secondary: What Does The Future Hold?

49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio chatted with the media before practice today and was asked quite a few questions about the secondary. The 49ers secondary was a bit maligned to start the season, but in recent weeks has started to come around quite a bit. They may give up a good number of yards between the 20s, but they have generally clamped down when needed and kept opposing teams from getting too many crooked numbers.

Earlier today, Matt Maiocco broke down the 49ers secondary rotation to date. Injuries have led to a variety of changes in the secondary, with Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver currently sitting as the two leading beneficiaries. Culliver has been making a conversion from safety since late in his college career and he is showing a strong mix of both skill and confidence. It remains to be seen how he will continue to develop, but the best cornerbacks are not only technically sound, but also mentally strong. Such is the life of players on the island outside.

It sounds like Shawntae Spencer and Tramaine Brock will be fairly limited once again this week, leaving Rogers/Brown/Culliver as the 1-2-3 once again. It will be an interesting mix of players moving forward. In the secondary, Rogers and Brock are free agents after this season. Brock is an exclusive rights free agent, which basically means he is not allowed to negotiate with any other team. His only leverage is holding out.

MM put together a breakdown of the 49ers contracts moving forward and the 49ers are in a position of some strength in that regard. If they can ink Rogers to an extension, their current 1-2-3 would be signed through 2013. If Brown has a strong finish to this season, I would not be at all surprised to see the 49ers sign him to a long term deal. Even with a solid 2011, Brown is at a point in his career where the team could sign him for a relatively reasonable deal that would make both sides happy.

Do you see the 49ers trying to build around Rogers, Brown and Culliver, or do you see some other move happening this coming offseason to build on the depth?

Shawntae Spencer is signed for one more year, and while he would be a great depth option moving forward, it will be interesting to see how the front office handles his status. He has struggled with injuries and has subsequently been passed on the depth chart. I've always been a fan of his, but if he can't stay consistently healthy, his long term role is in doubt.

Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio
Press Conference - October 27, 2011
San Francisco 49ers

Listen to Audio I Media Center 

How do you expect to use your third corner back this week, third corner? Who do you expect it to be and how do you plan to use them?

"I think it will be kind of similar to what it's been lately. [CB] Shawntae [Spencer] is improving, he's still not 100 percent. He's ready to play, but he's not 100 percent yet." 

So you expect [CB] Chris [Culliver] to be healthy?


What has [CB Tramaine] Brock been able to do when he's had the cast on his hand?

"He hasn't been able to do a whole lot. I'm sure he's doing some conditioning off on the side that I don't get to see. I think he went to the doctor either recently, today or yesterday, and got the cast off to where he can practice without it, but he's still progressing with that." 

For him, was it an issue of not being able to grab and to do what he needs to do with that left hand?

"Yeah, you guys know how hard it is to play corner in this league. Trying to do it with a club on your hand, it becomes that much harder. I've had bad experiences with that in the past of playing guys that have a big cast on their hand, particularly at the corner position. You're basically playing with one arm and that's not a position to be playing one arm with. Again, our healthy players are better than Brock with a cast on his hand." 

Has that whole spot, just as a whole, been a pleasant surprise with [CB] Carlos [Rogers] and [CB] Tarell Brown and the three guys you sort of cycled in?

"Yeah it has. We have good depth there. We have five corners on the roster. We have confidence in all of them. They all have played this year, significant snaps, and they are all very capable. Nothing would change, one way or the other, depending upon who was in there." 

What about Tarell Brown specifically? How have you seen in him grow into his role this year?

"He's done a nice job. He had a great opportunity through injury that allowed him to win that position right now and he's playing good football for us. He's been consistent. He's handled his one-on-one situations when they've arised. He's played good within the team defense part of it and he's done a nice job and that's credit to him and the work that he obviously put in during the lockout on his own and the way he's matured and progressed here in the past couple years." 

When you look at the Browns and you see the offense they run and their emphasis on the run, is it kind of like a [Steve] Mariucci team to you, as far as the Niners?

"In some ways. They run some of the same routes, but really the West Coast Offense that everybody claims they run, nobody really runs the West Coast Offense that Bill Walsh used to run. I coached against Bill Walsh back in the eighties. All of these self proclaimed West Coast Offenses really are not run in Bill Walsh's offense. They're running, they use his nomenclature and his words and defining and naming formations and stuff, but they're really not running the offense they he used to run a 100 percent of the time. Everybody's taking their own version of it and put their own little mark on it, but to me, I don't see anybody running the West Coast Offense." 

Which would you say is the closest to what Bill Walsh used to run?

"I don't know. It started changing way back when Mike Holmgren took over as the offensive coordinator here. He put his little twist on it and was still very similar to Bill Walsh's offense. Then when he went to Green Bay, it changed even a whole lot more and that all of those guys that have came from Holmgren that have become head coaches and moved on to other teams, they changed even more themselves. It's really more of everybody's own offense, with the roots and the call system, how they call formations being the same, but I don't really see teams running an offense real similar to what Bill Walsh used to run." 

The Browns, how have they diverged from that? I know it's a big thing. Could you just give us an example of how the Browns have diverged from what Bill used to do?

"Well they still, again, you can see the influence there. The head coach was at Philadelphia with Andy Reid, who came through Mike Holmgren. Mike Holmgren is the general manager there now. So I mean you see some similarities between all of that stuff, certain plays are still the same. You don't see the commitment to the whole offense they way that Bill Walsh was committed to it. I'm probably not answering your question, but I don't know how."    

That's okay, I have one more follow-up and I appreciate you doing this. Are the Browns or are you closer to Bill? Meaning the Niners, which offense is closer?

"I don't know." 


"I don't know." 

Would a pure Bill Walsh West Coast Offense still work today?

"Yes it could, but he was more committed to it than everybody else was. Now, the running game has changed. That's kind of where it all started to change. When Mike Holmgren took over here and then went to Green Bay, he ran a good bit of offense out of I-Backs, where Bill hardly ever did that. It just kind of morphed from there and it was an evolution that they were forced to do based upon the defenses." 

There was a nice feature about you today in the paper and one of the things that it said, is that you sometimes leave messages for yourself on your voicemail if you think of something. So you'll be at home and it will be night and you'll call your office and remind yourself?

"Yeah, it's modern technology. In the old days you used to have a pad and pencil next to your bed and write it down and take it to work. Now you just have your cell phone right next to the bed, you push one button and you call your office and leave yourself a message." 

Will you ever arrive at work and listen to your voicemails and be surprised that you had left yourself a message?

"No, I usually remember." 

When did you start doing that and why?

"Well, when cell phones came along and voicemail came along, voicemail more so than cell phones because you used to have the phone next to your bed. It's been a while, been doing it ever since we had voicemail. It's easier to talk into the phone at night, than turn the lights on a write on a piece of paper." 

You can get one of these.

"I don't like those." 

[LB] Ahmad Brooks was talking the other day about how he's played probably almost all but 10 snaps this season. How many guys have played almost every snap on defense?

"I would say [CB] Carlos Rogers has. Brown probably has. Both inside linebackers probably have. Ahmad and the unusual number is [DT] Justin Smith and [DT] Ray McDonald. They probably played a higher percentage of plays than most D-Lineman in this league." 

Does that at some point get to be concerning, like as the season wears on?

"It can be, but I think the bye came at a good time, particularly for those two guys. I think it also depends upon how you are playing on defense. If you are getting a bunch of 3-and-outs like we were lucky to do in our last game, those guys can play every play. They can play three plays and then they are off the field. It's when teams start driving the ball on you and you have a bunch of series in a game where they are getting eight, nine, ten plays on you, then it becomes harder on the bigger guys to stay out there that long. They need a blow." 

In your experiences, is it unusual to not have to take out your inside linebackers off the field in passing situations?

"Not real unusual. We were able to do it way back in New Orleans when we had those four linebackers, they all stayed on the field in all situations, for the most part, when we had [LB] Sam Mills and [LB] Vaughan Johnson. It kind of depends on the player. If he's capable of being a good pass defender when the game switches to either/or run-pass, where it's now dominated by the pass, if they're good athletes who cover the space, be good blitzers, then they can stay out there. Fortunately our two guys fit that bill." 

Have you guys, it seems like there's always competition on the defense whether it's the one safety coming in for nickel, or the starting safety reaming. From week to week, is that something you try to promote, that your job, whether it's the base, nickel or dime, you're always competing for it?

"It's just kind of happened and evolved that way because of the various injuries we've had. [S] Reggie Smith was doing well in training camp early on, then he hurt his knee, so that opened that up. Then, [S] Dashon Goldson came back. He was starting to play, then he got hurt and was out for a couple weeks. [S] Donte Whitner got hurt in the Cincinnati game, missed most of that game, missed the next game. Guys have gotten opportunities because of other guys' injuries and it's created playing time for everybody and guys have taken advantage of that playing time. It does make it harder on us to decide who to play when guys get healthy. I don't think it's something we've promoted, but competition is your best motivator. It's been a good situation. I think the guys have handled it as well as they can. They all want to play. We wish we could play them all, but at times you just have to make a choice and roll with it." 

The last game, Donte played nickel, too, right?


Is he suited for that role?

"Yes, he can play nickel and he can play safety in our substitution defenses. We have one package where there are actually three safeties out there, where Donte plays a little lower and the two other safeties come in. We play three safeties in every game, even if nobody is hurt. So if one goes down, the next one is in there. There are plenty of opportunities for those guys to play." 

When you're talking about competition, have you heard of friendly competition between the left side of the defense versus the right side in terms of stopping the run?

"I haven't heard of that, I haven't heard them." 

They're starting.

"That really should not be a competition because many runs can cut back. So, they may start to the left side but they cut back to the right side. The right side better be up to snuff there, too. Run defense is team defense."