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Early in the 2014 season, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles found himself short-handed, needing to adapt his scheme to changing personnel. The Cardinals fielded the league's second-ranked defense the previous season, Bowles' first in Arizona, and their success was built predominantly on the strength of their front seven. But by the end of Week 1, several key members of the Cardinals' front seven were no longer around.
￼Versatile, veteran inside linebacker Karlos Dansby left for Cleveland in free agency. Dansby's younger, more talented running mate, Daryl Washington, received a season-long suspension from the league office for violating the substance abuse policy. Darnell Dockett, a long-time stalwart at defensive end, tore his ACL during an August practice and was lost for the season. And after suffering a concussion during the third quarter of Arizona's season opener, Bowles' best edge rusher, John Abraham, left the team to contemplate retirement; he wouldn't return.
Bowles wasn't completely deprived of talented players to work with. Defensive end Calais Campbell had long been one of the league's best, most underrated defenders. There was hope some of the production at inside linebacker could be replaced by inserting highly-touted LSU prospect, Kevin Minter. But there was no way around it — the front seven was depleted, and as Bowles put it, "[the Cardinals] had to tweak a few things."
If this story doesn't seem familiar, it should. The situation facing Bowles and the Cardinals a year ago is eerily similar to the one facing the San Francisco 49ers in 2015. Like the Cardinals, the 49ers had built their defensive success on the shoulders of a dominant front seven. Like the Cardinals, the 49ers lost many of the unit's cornerstone pieces all at once and have been forced to adapt. And if San Francisco's offseason moves are any indication, they might very well be choosing to follow in their division rival's footsteps.
Arizona compensated for losses in the front seven by relying heavily on depth in the secondary. Bowles had always been multiple with his looks, but in 2014 sub-packages — which frequently featured three, sometimes four, safeties — became even more vital to his defensive attack. Technically listed on the depth chart as safeties, Rashad Johnson, Tony Jefferson, Deone Bucannon, and Tyrann Mathieu truly served as hybrid defenders who Bowles could move all over the formation.
￼Hybrid offensive players have been trendy in the NFL for years now. Big, athletic tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham might line up as a traditional in-line tight end, in the slot, and split out wide, all on the same drive. Smaller, speedy "space" players like Shane Vereen and Randall Cobb are dangerous receivers from the slot and out of the backfield while also posing a threat to run the ball. Consider the Cardinals' quartet of safeties, particularly Bucannon and Mathieu, the defense's answer to the multipurpose weapons being deployed on offense. On any given play, they might be filling the role of safety, linebacker, or cornerback.
With versatile defenders capable of stuffing the run as a nickel linebacker on one play, covering a tight end in man coverage from the slot on the next, and blitzing the quarterback on another, Bowles was able to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. "With all the DBs on the field, I guess it's hard [for a quarterback] to point out who the Mike linebacker is—so that leaves the offense in a little bit of confusion," Bowles told Sports Illustrated's The MMQB after Arizona's 3-0 start last year. "You've got four safeties who can come back or come up, so you kind of play with that a little bit to offset some of your lack of pass rush."
It worked. Bowles and the Cardinals confused offenses with myriad looks and alignments, finishing the season as the league's seventh-ranked defense, and helping Arizona to their first playoff berth since 2009. To get an idea of just how different the Cardinals defense, and the roles of their hybrid defenders, could be from one play to the next, consider the following three plays (only a tiny sample of the many variations Bowles used from week-to-week) from Arizona's four-point victory over Philadelphia in Week 8:
Projecting Mangini's New Defense
You've heard the old cliché: The NFL is a copycat league. Well, one could infer from a growing number of hints that a remade 49ers defense, under the direction of new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, might look to mimic many of the tactics that made the Cardinals so successful a year ago.
We know very little about what Mangini's defense will look like come September, but we can make a few reasonable assumptions based on his previous tendencies. For starters, Mangini is likely to blitz more frequently than his predecessor, Vic Fangio. San Francisco's blitz rate consistently ranked near the bottom of the league under Fangio. Mangini, while head coach of the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, sent five defenders after the quarterback on at least 25 percent of plays every season, never ranking lower than eighth in that area according to data from Football Outsiders. Big blitzes (six defenders or more) weren't quite as consistent. Early in his tenure with the Jets, Mangini used big blitzes heavily but cooled on them a bit by the time he got to the Browns. It's safe to say Mangini won't sit back and rush four on most every down the way Fangio did.
More varied pre-snap alignments are also likely to characterize Mangini's defense. Fangio's defense typically remained static before the snap, presenting a similar picture for the offense at the start of each play before morphing into different coverages after the snap by having defenders use pattern-match techniques to adapt to the offense's passing concepts. Mangini prefers to create confusion in a different manner. "Coach Mangini's thing is that we're going to cause confusion," safety Antoine Bethea said during a media session this offseason. "The opposing offense won't know what we're going to do each down. That could be bringing pressure or dropping eight in coverage but it's all about keeping the offense on their heels. That means a lot of movement and everyone having to know what everyone else is doing. It could be different people doing different jobs. Everybody just knows what we have to do."
Changes won't just be occurring from play to play; Mangini's upbringing under New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick tells us that the 49ers de￼fense could look very different from one week to the next based on the opponent. "[Y]ou hear about being game-plan specific," Mangini said in an interview with Sports Illustrated's The MMQB. "Sometimes that's just a catch phrase, but I grew up that way defensively, and I believe in that, where each week we are going to have challenges we have to deal with, and we have to have the tools and flexibility both physically and mentally to get that done in a very short time frame. So I'm a big believer in building flexibility into the defense, too."
With the retirement of inside linebacker Patrick Willis, and the uncertainty surrounding NaVorro Bowman after missing all of last season with his gruesome knee injury suffered during the 2013 NFC Championship Game, Mangini is most likely to find the flexibility he's looking for in the secondary — just as Bowles did in Arizona.
San Francisco's starting safety duo from a year ago, Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea, already had interchangeable roles in Fangio's defense, proving to be equally capable of dropping into the box and defending the run as they are roaming the deep middle of the field. Both players have made a trip to the Pro Bowl in the past two seasons, and they profile as a more talented version of the Johnson-Jefferson combo in Arizona.
Jimmie Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick in 2014, fits the Mathieu mold of a hybrid safety/cornerback. Like most rookie defensive backs, Ward went through his share of struggles last season, but those struggles have been greatly exaggerated thanks to a nationally televised meltdown in the 49ers' Week 2 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football. Bears wideout Brandon Marshall out-muscled Ward on numerous occasions that night, scoring three touchdowns against the rookie's coverage. But there's little shame in having your worst game of the season come against one of the league's best receivers in just your second NFL game. Ward was consistently average following that performance until a foot injury landed him on injured reserve after eight games.
Health remains the biggest concern for Ward entering 2015. In addition to ending his rookie season prematurely, injuries to his right foot have now kept Ward from participating in much of the offseason program for two straight ￼seasons. Ward believes he'll be ready for training camp, but he's now missed valuable development time in consecutive offseasons. However, if healthy, he possesses the skill set to become a playmaker in the middle of San Francisco's defense. Ward will continue to see time in the slot, as he did during his rookie season, but he is also a willing run defender and shows promise as a blitzer off the edge. Ward should see more blitz opportunities this season; Mangini's defenses have consistently ranked among the league leaders in percentage of sacks by defensive backs.
Ward, Reid, and Bethea were all around in 2014, but the final piece of the Bowles-influenced defensive puzzle was added this offseason. San Francisco selected Jaquiski Tartt in the second round of this year's draft, giving the team a third highly-drafted safety in as many years. And just for fun, Tartt's closest athletic comparison? Deone Bucannon, of course. Tartt is billed as big, physical, hard-hitting safety, just like Bucannon was coming out of college, and it's possible we could see Tartt fill the same hybrid safety/linebacker role Bucannon filled for the Cardinals a season ago.
With four safeties on the roster in whom the 49ers have invested significant resources, the exodus of veteran talent in the front seven, and a new defensive coordinator who favors flexibility above all else, it seems incredibly unlikely that San Francisco won't attempt to get all four defenders on the field at the same time. Bowles and the Cardinals have provided the blueprint, and Mangini has been paying attention. For the past two years, Mangini was a member of Jim Harbaugh's offensive staff, spending his weeks studying opposing defenses.
"Every week I was watching defensive tape," Mangini told The MMQB. "It was a good look at trends in the league, the things that are effective, and that's another part of the evolution of the playbook." When asked to expand on his observations from the two years on offense, Mangini added, "There are other teams that are really effective at blitzing and creating pressure, and you look at it and say, What makes them effective, what do they do well, what's been the biggest challenge for offenses that face them? Let's see if we can take components of that and do that well."
Many observers felt the 49ers failed to address the losses of Willis and Chris Borland when no inside linebackers of note were added to the roster via free agency or the draft, but they were looking in the wrong place. Replacing a player of Willis' caliber, who never had to come off the field and was equally effective stuffing the run as defending the pass, is next to impossible. Borland wasn't near the all-around talent that Willis was, but he was probably the best replacement you could reasonably hope for, and well, he retired, too.
But in today's NFL, positional lines have become increasingly blurred, and the two-letter designation next to a player's name on the roster is more title than job description. San Francisco's foursome of safeties might not fill the same position as their departed inside linebackers on the depth chart, but with hybrid players like Tartt and Ward, they can potentially provide the 49ers defense with similar versatility on the field.
Arizona's players raved at Bowles' ability to put them in positions to succeed. "That's why [Bowles] is so special," Cardinals defensive end Frostee Rucker told The Arizona Republic last season. "He plays to a guy's strengths. He doesn't just say, 'Well, 'F' it. This is my defense. This is the way we run things." In theory, the 49ers have the pieces they need to recreate their divisional rival's success. It's on Mangini to fit those pieces together.