49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

September 29, 2008
Belly up in the Big Easy

Had a late flight out of New Orleans, which allowed me A.) to have an oyster po'boy at Mother's before leaving for the airport and B.) to peruse the local papers. It's clear that the story of the day here was Deuce McAllister's triumphant return to the game plan. The main headline on the front page of the Times-Picayune today is: DEUCE's HIGH with a photo of McAllister crashing over safety Mark Roman (which is poetic itself) for a touchdown. The headline on the sports page screams DEUUUUUUUCE! On the front page, Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan writes that McAllister was able to pound the "soft gut" of the 49ers' defense.

Soft gut. The 49ers' defense shouldn't have a soft gut. Over the years, they've rejected the tall, 275-pound pass-rushing defensive end for squat 315-pound fire hydrants, the type of player who should excel at stopping the run. They have the best tackler in the league in middle linebacker Patrick Willis. They have big, physical players in the secondary. They have a defensive-minded head coach who has tried to build a tough, blue-collar-style defense. The 49ers' gut shouldn't be soft; it should be a team strength.

But Duncan is right. The 49ers are soft where it counts. Edgerrin James ran against them in Week One, Julius Jones in Week Two. Detroit's Rudi Johnson found success last week and McAllister pushed them around yesterday. No doubt Laurence Maroney and the Patriots offense will look to get back on track against the 49ers on Sunday.

Part of the problem is scheme. The 49ers use their nickel or "Big Sub" defense quite a bit, reasoning that it's good at guarding against big offensive plays. That's what Mike Nolan fears the most - "explosives" by the opposing offense. But offensive coordinators have countered by running between the tackles, as the Saints and McAllister did Sunday.

The Big Sub also seems to rob the 49ers of their pass rush. Heading into the season, a lot of ink was spilled on how versatile free-agent pick up Justin Smith was going to be. Offenses weren't going to be able to isolate him like they did when he was a Cincinnati Bengal because in addition to defensive end, he would play linebacker, defensive tackle and would move around just before the ball was snapped. In "Big Sub," however, Smith mostly is limited to playing end. (He does shift inside on obvious passing plays). Is it any coincidence that the 49ers have had one sack in the games in which they've primarily played Big Sub and have had seven in the other two? You can have 16 defensive backs playing against Drew Brees. But if you give him time to throw, he's going to find an open receiver.

The other part of the equation is personnel. Nolan has said that the "Big Sub" ought to be just as good at stopping the run as the base defense. After all, the "Big Sub" features four defensive linemen. But those big, 315 pounders the 49ers have assembled over the years are getting pushed around too easily. The objective is for Aubrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga and mates to hold their ground and gum up the line of scrimmage so that Willis and others can swoop in and make the tackles. The problem is that the line too often loses ground. Willis made a lot of tackles against the Saints. But when McAllister was in, it was five and six yards downfield.

The Saints are widely considered to have a finesse team, and the 49ers countered with a finesse defense. And the bottom line is that they were pushed around.

The TV cameras caught a frustrated Vernon Davis -- one catch for 19 yards -- on the sidelines with Nolan. here's what Nolan had to say today about the episode:

RE: When you had that confrontation with Vernon Davis, can you talk a little bit about what that was?
"I have not spoken with Vernon since yesterday and I'd look for him to..."

RE: Did you talk to him on the sideline?
"I did not talk to him on the sideline with the game going on. He's very emotional. He was excited at the time. I really don't know what transpired at the time, but he was right there in front of me and was really excited about whatever was going on so I pulled him aside. Because any player that's in that kind of mode, I don't think is best to stay on the field. At that time, I just called him off. Obviously I grabbed him. I said, 'Look, sit down. Sit down and calm down.' I turned my attention back to the game because we were on the field. But I have not had words with him since. But I will."

RE: Do you plan to?
"Oh yeah. But I haven't gotten...I just want to see what...To be honest with you, I don't understand why he was so excited at the time. He just caught the ball. He had gotten up. I don't know if it was a play prior to that one, but I just know that he had a lot of emotion going on. He is an emotional player. I know that Pete Hoener has always spoken with him. Mike Martz spoke with him on the sideline. Like I said, it was more emotion than anything else."

RE: Did he get back in the game?
"Yeah, he got back in the game. He did, but he didn't do anything. At the time I pulled him, it was about emotion, it wasn't about, he had said something or done something. Why I grabbed him, he was emotional."

RE: Do you sense a growing level of frustration with him?
"I don't know if I'd call it frustration. He's a very emotional player. When he gets the ball, obviously every time he gets up, whether it's the first quarter or the fourth quarter, he's very excited and shows himself, but when you are losing I think anybody gets frustrated. When the game is like it was, I don't care what position you play. It was a little bit of frustration because you want to have leverage in a game. We didn't have leverage."

RE: Did he get back in the game after that coach?
"I can't answer that because I don't remember. I don't recall. I don't remember exactly the timing of the game when that did occur. Do you?"

RE: It was during the fourth quarter...
"I don't know what we had left."

RE: It was right before the touchdown pass.
"What's that?"

RE: It was right before Isaac Bruce's touchdown.
"Touchdown? I don't remember the steps we had following that because I believe we kicked an onside kick and didn't get it. We got the ball back with about 30 seconds I believe."

RE: How was his blocking, Vernon's blocking?
"His pass protection was good. His run blocking a couple times, they slipped him. So is the case."

RE: Did you have to keep him in at some point because of the protection problems
"Like I said, we mix up our protections quite a bit. So whether it's a six man protection or seven man protection without getting real technical with that, he's stays in on some of those and some of those he's out. It's just a matter of mixing up protections for the play. If you have a play-action pass, a lot of times you don't have a lot of receivers out on a play-action pass. Again, it's just a matter of mixing."

Here's what Nolan had to say about the odd challenge he made in the third quarter, which cost the 49ers a timeout they -- presumably, at the time -- could have used at game's end.

RE: In the third quarter, you challenged a reception by the Saints. Why did you challenge it?
"You know what, I took my time on that too, that challenge, because I wanted to slow the game down. Obviously, it was a challenge that was, the significance of it wasn't a great deal. But, at the time I was thinking about burning a time out just to slow things down. So I just used a challenge instead. At the same time I looked, I thought he bobbled it, and when I looked up at the screen I saw that he didn't have complete control when he went to the ground, so I thought I might get it back. But to me, more than anything, I just wanted to slow things down. If you have the opportunity, because I've frequently have seen in the first few weeks, even on third down, I've called a timeout maybe once a game, and it's played to our advantage thus far this season. Where I think, 'Look it, I just want to get this situation just right so we can get off the field.' If there's a preceding play that gives me an opportunity just to challenge, because I don't lose anything, I'm going to lose a timeout either way. Something like that did it. But, otherwise, like I said, it was to gain time as much as anything. Just maybe I could win it and keep another challenge."

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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