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49ers welcome back Vic Fangio at his fiercest

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The 49ers offense faces a doozy of a matchup in Week 16.

The San Francisco 49ers host the Chicago Bears this Sunday, and it marks Vic Fangio’s first road game against the team he previously worked for as defensive coordinator. Fangio departed the 49ers after the 2014 season, and has been in Chicago ever since. The 49ers have faced the Bears each of the past three years, but all three games were in Chicago.

The Bears defense is currently tops in the league in total efficiency, as well as pass and run defense efficiency individually. It is the culmination of a rebuilding effort that began ion 2015 when Ryan Pace took over as general manager and Fangio took over as defensive coordinator. The Bears ranked 31st in 2015, 23rd in 2016, 14th in 2017, and now number one.

The swift move to the top of the rankings is not surprising given what transpired shortly before the season began. The Bears already had developed a talented unit, but the move to acquire edge rusher Khalil Mack has put them over the top in a huge way. Mitchell Trubisky and the offense have shown signs of development, but if this team makes noise in January, it will be because of that defense.

Naturally this matchup brings back plenty of memories for 49ers fans. Personnel change, but there are plenty of similarities between this defense and the great 49ers defenses under Fangio. The 49ers defense turned around in 2011, and arguably peaked in 2012 before Justin Smith tore his triceps muscle late in the season.

On Wednesday, Bears head coach Matt Nagy talked about how Fangio lets his players play fast without going too crazy in how he builds what they are doing. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan echoed that talking about how it’s not risky, and they play sound football and keep everything boxed in.

“They’re very good in their front seven. They have the personnel to do it and the scheme to do it. With their edge setters, they have big guys inside who don’t have to move at all because of how well they set the edge on the outside, which helps your linebackers not have to be in much space. And they play physical. They’ve always had a pass rush. They do different ways of it. They do have some pressures and stuff, but they rarely run pressures that makes their coverages vulnerable.”

Developing Trubisky will likely prove critical, but for Nagy, the biggest thing he’s done to date is retain Fangio. Although Fangio got a chance to interview for the Bears job, they pushed pretty hard to hire Nagy. The head coach said he had spoken with Fangio even prior to interviewing and thus they had a pre-existing relationship.

“So once I did get the job here, he was the first person that I talked to, and we just kinda talked through the process of number one, philosophically, what do we believe in, and that was easy. And then as people and working together, how are we and how can that relationship be, and that was easy too. Not to mention that we’re both from Pennsylvania, east coast guys, so it was a natural fit.”

Earlier this week, I spoke with Windy City Gridiron writer Jeff Berckes to get his thoughts on Fangio. He talked about the importance of retaining him, and what he has done with the Bears defense.

The best thing John Fox did for Chicago was to convince Fangio to come over to the Bears after the Harbaugh firing. If there’s ever a city where the Defensive Coordinator is as well-known and likely more popular than that Head Coach, it’s Chicago, so I can assure you he’s well thought of. Robert Mays of The Ringer has started a whisper campaign to build the narrative that Fangio hates puppies, and no self-respecting owner will stand for hiring a HC that hates puppies. I fully embrace this campaign and would like the teams looking for a new General in the offseason to please steer clear of mean ole Uncle Vic.

He’s been able to build a very impressive unit and has reestablished defense as the identity of the franchise. There are times when he seems slow to counter the offenses adjustments and there have been more than a few times where he seems to take the foot off the gas too early, but overall, you can’t argue with the results. The performance against the Rams was a masterpiece and if the Bears want to go deep into the playoffs, he’s going to need to repeat that performance.

The 49ers offense will have its hands full this weekend. They might not have to face free safety Eddie Jackson, but that will only help so much. They will face a ball-hawking defense with a fierce pass rush. It will be critical to get the run game going because otherwise, Nick Mullens will be in for a long day in the pocket.

The Shanahan-Fangio chess match will be something to behold.