Safety Donte Whitner has been an impact player for the 49ers. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Vic Fangio, the 49ers’ first-year defensive coordinator, is a straightforward, hard-nosed veteran NFL coach.
Fangio has said he’s an advocate of “defense the old-fashioned, hard-school way,” and his Niners are a reflection of his philosophy and style.
San Francisco’s defense is the foundation of the team’s success, the bedrock for 14 victories in 17 games – including a victory over the New Orleans Saints last weekend – and the biggest reason the team is in this Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants.
The 49ers rush the passer, stuff the run, hit hard and force turnovers.
Their plus-28 turnover differential led the NFL this season, and they took the ball away from the Saints four times in their 36-32 victory in the divisional-round game. The Niners also ranked No. 2 in the NFL in points allowed this season (14.3) and No. 4 in overall defense (308.2 yards per game).
Against the Saints, nothing epitomized San Francisco’s defensive personality more than safety Donte Whitner’s jarring hit on running back Pierre Thomas near the goal line that forced a fumble and knocked Thomas out of the game.
“Donte’s play where he got the ball loose was huge,” defensive lineman Justin Smith told USA Today. “It set the momentum we were going to have that game, and it probably took seven points off the board. Huge, huge play. He’s been doing that all year. He’s a physical dude.”
Going into the season, the team’s talent on the line and at linebacker was a given. But the secondary was a giant question mark that didn’t even come together until August when, over a six-day span, the Niners signed free agents Whitner, safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers. Those three, with corner Tarell Brown, have given the team a unit that has not only erased the question mark but surpassed all expectations.
As Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group notes, 22 of the team’s 23 interceptions this season – a total that was No. 2 in the NFL – were made by the secondary. Pro Bowl picks Rogers and Goldson had six each.
Whitner, in particular, is a hitter who makes his presence known. Thomas wasn’t the first running back he’s knocked out of a game this season. His style fits perfectly with Fangio’s scheme.
“Vic brought (a mentality) that we’re going to be physical, we’re going to get after teams with a four-man rush, play a lot of covers back there and let those guys rush,” Whitner told USA Today.
Now, San Francisco’s secondary faces a big test in the Giants. Quarterback Eli Manning has matured into one of the NFL’s best big-game performers, and he has a cast of skilled, fast receivers in Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham.
In the 49ers’ 27-20 victory over the Giants in November, San Francisco was able to hold New York in check on the ground, but Manning threw for 311 yards and two TDs. He was picked off twice, however.
Rogers knows the 49ers DBs will have their hands full Sunday.
“Nicks can make any catch, run any route. Cruz is trouble in the slot, a real quick guy, and Manningham is a deep threat down the middle,” he told Inman. “They all possess a different challenge, and it seems like they’re getting better every week we’ve seen them play.”
Added Brown: “It’s going to be a challenging week for us as far as the secondary, because we know they’re going to come out throwing the ball. But we’re really looking forward to it.”