SANTA CLARA, Calif. - September can be a thrilling time for baseball fans as pennant races reach their boiling point. But for San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, a Philadelphia Phillies fan, a team in last place, baseball isn’t bringing him much excitement.
And the same can be said for the 49ers defense that couldn’t prevent the Chicago Bears from scoring 21-unanswered points in Sunday’s 28-20 loss in the home opener.
When discussing his defense’s play Thursday, Fangio, unprovoked, drew on America’s past time for metaphors appropriate to his team’s disappointing performance.
Rookie cornerback Jimmie Ward, who allowed three touchdowns to five-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall in the slot Sunday, didn’t play as poorly as the highlight reel might indicate - like a hitter on a forgettable afternoon going 0-for-3 against an opponent’s No. 1 starter.
"Unlike playing some other positions or playing baseball, where you have a couple bad at-bats...it’s not quite as noticeable as it as at the (defensive back) position when they’re throwing the ball your way," Fangio said. "He had some plays he’d like to play better, but overall he played OK."
Head coach Jim Harbaugh intimated earlier this week the team will look at Ward’s role against bigger receivers, particularly in the red zone. “We're going to look, we're going to coach, we're going to grow. That's our objective,” he said.
Ward could be posed with a similar task this week against Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who has lined up in the slot on 37 percent of his snaps this year, per Pro Football Focus. Fitzgerald is listed as four inches taller than Ward, who had a five-inch, 30-pound disparity against Marshall.
What can Ward do to combat the size disadvantage?
"Play a little firmer," Fangio said. "Know that the body that he’s going against is bigger than his. Get him some help. He’s just got to play a little better. He was trying to do things right the other night but just wasn’t good enough. It’s not a major overhaul or panic button, you just got to be a little bit better."
Penalties are another focus this week after the team amassed 16 for 118 yards Sunday, including six that led to Bears’ first downs. In the second quarter, rookie lineman Quinton Dial’s roughing the passer penalty led to Marshall’s first touchdown. Dial hit quarterback Jay Cutler in the chest, or in the proverbial “strike zone,” but was flagged for leading with his helmet.
On the Bears third-quarter scoring drive, they were stopped on two third-down plays, but had the drive extended thanks to a pair of penalties. Pass rusher Corey Lemonier was called for illegal hands to the face and corner Dontae Johnson for illegal contact.
”You play a team that last year was the second-highest scoring offense in the league, Chicago was, and you give them extra opportunities, it’s like giving a team extra outs in baseball,” Fangio said, “you’re in trouble with a quarterback like Cutler and receivers they have.”
Lemonier’s play has been uninspiring through two games replacing Aldon Smith, who has seven games remaining on his suspension. Playing almost entirely in passing situations, Lemonier has yet to have one quarterback pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. The second-year outside linebacker has been unimaginative in his technique getting to the quarterback, to which Fangio offered another unprovoked baseball reference.
”Everybody’s got to have a couple pitches. It’s like in baseball, you can’t be a fastball pitcher, you got to have some off-speed pitches there,” he said.
Given Fangio’s fondness for obscure baseball references, it’s fitting the team is traveling to the play the Arizona Cardinals this week, where half of baseball’s teams go each year for spring training to work on fundamentals, an area where his defense could afford improvement.
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