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49ers Vs. Cardinals: Top Five Defensive Plays

SB Nation has worked out a deal with Gillette ProGlide that will have us breaking down the top five defensive plays from the previous week's game. Given the aggressive nature of the 49ers defense, this will often provide numerous plays to break down. If there are not at least five plays to break down, I'm guessing something has gone very wrong. I suppose it could be a generally dull game, but if the 49ers defense is shutting down the opposing team, I'd imagine there will be a variety of key moments.

Against the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers defense was flying all over the field making plays. It's hard to really describe one play as the best or most important. But that isn't going to stop me from an arbitrary ranking of plays. After the five plays I've posted defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's comments from his pre-practice press conference yesterday:

1. Patrick Willis pass deflection - I actually thought this play was the most ridiculous play of the day because of the athleticism displayed. In the first quarter, Willis dropped into coverage and John Skelton turned in his direction to fire a pass at Larry Fitzgerald. Willis had initially started underneath but began backing up when it became clear Skelton was looking to pass. He made his way back and when Skelton didn't get quite enough air under the pass, Willis leapt and tipped it away.

2. Patrick Willis interception - Prior to Bamm Bamm's deflection, he was involved in a great play that resulted in the first interception of the game. John Skelton fired a pass behind Andre Roberts and Tarell Brown reached back to try and grab the ball. The ball bounced off his arm and into Patrick Willis' belly for the interception. The 49ers did not turn it into a touchdown, but it was still a sweet play.

3. Aldon Smith sack/dance - This wasn't exactly a game-changing play, but it was another great effort sack by Aldon Smith and we got to see the Aldon Smith sack dance (1:03 mark). Smith was chipped by Chester Taylor and had to brace himself with one hand. He bounced back and took down Richard Bartell for sack 7.5. I love how he brings the crazy effort on so many of these sacks.

4. Donte Whitner interception - This might have been the play that most clearly defined the 49ers defense versus the Cardinals offense. The Cardinals were down 16-0 and John Skelton had just completed an 18-yard pass on the first play of the drive. On the next play, he basically just threw it up hoping it would end up in Larry Fitzgerald's hands. Well, the pass did end up going to a wide open player. it just happened to be Donte Whitner. Ahmad Brooks got some pressure on Skelton, but it still just looked like he was chucking it up and hoping for the best.

5. Dashon Goldson interception - The 49ers ended up losing the shutout late in the game, but Dashon Goldson kept the Cardinals out of the end zone two drives earlier. Rick Bartell had connected with Andre Roberts on a 45-yard catch and run that involved some blown coverage and the Cardinals were at the 49ers 26. Two plays later, the 49ers got some pressure on Skelton and Goldson made a nice diving interception.

Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio
Press Conference - November 22, 2011
San Francisco 49ers

Listen to Audio I Media Center

Vic, what was kind of your role in Baltimore, I know you were sort of a nebulous consultant?

"The first few couple years I was there, I was special assistant to the head coach and basically did a lot of work with the coaches, both sides of the ball, and worked with the head coach in helping him do his duties particularly during the game."

And I know you were a linebackers coach there too, but did some of your duties involve scouting and involve getting matchups, or isolating matchups, or what would be good?

"Yes, for both sides."

Did you have the itch to get back?

"Oh yeah, it was really a great experience for me. It really was, working both sides of the ball and getting a better, full perspective of everything. It's something that I would recommend for everybody to do if they could."

With knowing what you know about the Ravens, did you work with the 49ers offensive staff this week?

"Not really. If it was a normal week I probably would have, but obviously with the time crunch, it was too hard to do. Now have they asked me a question here and there, yes, but nothing of significance. I think it would have been significant if it wasn't for the time crunch."

How similar is the Ravens offense to two years ago when you were there?

"It's still very similar scheme-wise. They've changed their running game. They've gone to a zone-scheme running game, which is a change for them from last year to this year. So, that's been a big change. The other change has been their personnel. They have a really explosive and dynamic personnel group. [Ravens WR Torrey] Smith is probably one of the fastest receivers in the league, if not the fastest. They have [Ravens WR] Lee Evans there now, so they've got two real speed burners outside. They've got a great inside receiver, when they move him in there, in [Ravens WR Anquan] Boldin, who's an accomplished receiver as you guys know from his days at Arizona. And they've got these two really good, young tight ends who are really good receivers and competitive blockers. And then it all starts with [Ravens RB] Ray Rice and [Ravens QB] Joe Flacco, those guys are still there. So, I think it's probably the best offensive skill position personnel that the Ravens have ever had since they moved to Baltimore."

Your defense was on the field for 15 minutes and 44 seconds in the Arizona game, is that a huge benefit for you given the short week, your players?

"Oh it might be, but I don't see it as a huge benefit."

How important has Torrey Smith's emergence been for their offense overall?

"Big. The one thing Joe Flacco can do probably as good as anybody in the league is throw deep balls. And they've got a guy there now in him and Evans that can go deep. We just saw a play in there, in the meeting I was just in, where Flacco threw it 70 yards in the air to him. The ball traveled 70 yards in the air. So, and Flacco's always been a great deep-ball player and they finally got some guys he can do it with."

In the last game it seemed like you didn't send any more than four and you've done that before, what's the philosophy behind that?

"Well one, what we were doing is working. Two, a lot of people think when you play a young quarterback you should go after him, send the kitchen sink. But many times that makes his job easier because he sees pressure, he can throw somewhere to where he's got a one-on-one matchup. Sometimes against a young quarterback, it's good to make him be a quarterback, drop back there, read his coverage, find an open receiver, go through his progression. I think that's tougher on a young quarterback in some instances, and that's the approach I took that past game."

Is that something that you have always felt that way, or did that?

"It's by game, by who the quarterback is and the scheme they're running."

Does it also help to save some legs because I know you say the pass rush is one of the most difficult things to do?

"Well it actually doesn't save - when you're rushing three or four that's harder on those guys than if you're rushing five or six because they can just kind of blow a gap and go. Whereas when you're rushing three or four, that's when you get in those wrestling matches and that's what's so fatiguing for the pass rushers."

[LB Patrick] Willis came out starting the first quarter with a pick, force fumble, and a pass defense, has he stepped his game up the last few weeks, and is it fair to be comparing him to [Ravens LB] Ray Lewis has done in Baltimore?

"I don't know that he's picked his game up. He's played great all year. He's just-you allude to the plays that are obvious and those are great plays, but he's played great all year. Last week he sprinkled in a pick, and a big breakup, and a fumble. So, yeah he picked it up as far as the plays that are really noticeable, but he's played great all year. Yeah and right now he's definitely in the conversation of if you want to pick out the top three inside linebackers in football, Patrick's definitely in that conversation."

You've coached with both John [Harbaugh] and Jim [Harbaugh]. Does the brother/brother matchup have any special significance to you?


What was your history with the Harbaugh's, just the family, before you were on John's staff?

"None, just coaching against Jim when he was a quarterback and I was a coach, but I had no relationship with either one of them prior to working with John in Baltimore."

How did you end up on John's staff?

"I was there with [former Ravens head coach Brian] Billick prior to John coming and John kept me to stay on there."

So he interviewed you and how did that process play out, because a lot of times when a new coach comes in very few guys stick around?

"Yeah he interviewed me a little bit. We talked. My role there was a little different and he did his investigating and decided to keep me."

Jim noted yesterday that he tried to get you to come to Stanford for a couple of years, what kept you from jumping from the Ravens to Stanford earlier?

"Well number one is my family is in Baltimore, that's where my kids live. So, that's the obvious reason and probably the only reason at that point."

You mentioned the deep ball, how do you think that you guys have done against that this year? There seems to be a few big plays but they seem like short plays that turned into big plays.

"We've had some that have gotten out of there and we've given up, but it has not been an epidemic and I don't see it as being a problem. I think some of the ones we've given up over the long hall, not when you look at each play individually, but as the big picture that's life in the NFL, you're going to give up some of those."

You got some pretty good face time on TV Sunday for a play that went first and yards, were you more upset at what happened on the inside or the outside on that play?

"The outside. That play should have either gained no yards, or three yards. We didn't play it correctly."

Was that a rookie learning experience?

"No it wasn't really rookie."

What's the biggest difference between John and Jim? Everybody assumes they're so similar because they come from, like Jim even says, they come from the same cloth, the same dad, same coaching background, what's the biggest difference in their coaching?

"Well I'm probably the person that has the most perspective on that because I was with John his first two years in Baltimore and worked closely with him there in his first head coaching job. And obviously been with Jim last year at Stanford and the transition that coming over to here and everything that's involved with that. And I would say about 30 percent of them is similar, being that they're from the same family, same parents and all that. But 70 percent of them are very different. They're two very different individuals, two very different, in most cases."

How are they different?

"That's top secret. That's my information and I'm keeping it to myself."

What kind of similarities do you see between your defense and the Ravens defense, or are there similarities?

"We're both playing good. There're probably not a lot of similarities. There is some. We even use some of the words they use and vice versa. An interesting thing there, [Cincinnati Bengals Head Coach] Marvin Lewis was the first defensive coordinator in Baltimore and he came from Pittsburgh. While at Pittsburg, he was a linebacker coach with [Packers Defensive Coordinator] Dom Capers there, who Dom and I had worked together eight years prior to that in New Orleans. So, a lot of the stuff they were doing at Pittsburgh is stuff I was familiar doing with way back in New Orleans. And he brought that to Baltimore with him and some of that stuff is still there, especially the lingo and stuff. So, there are some similarities that way because the roots of our defenses have some of the same background, but there are some similarities, but not a lot."