49ers Blog and Q&A

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

September 16, 2008
Nolan defends defense against Seattle

Sometimes "it's not best to dance with the one that brought you." I'm not exactly sure what that means, but that was Mike Nolan's reasoning for using a nickel defense throughout Sunday's game in Seattle. Nolan said that the Seahawks use multiple receiver formations throughout the game, and moreover are able to change those formations so quickly that it puts the defense at a disadvantage. Rather than trying to keep up substitution for substitution, he thought the 49ers could cover all their bases with an alignment that had four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. That strategy had worked well in the past against Seattle, after all.

Said Nolan: "When you try to jockey in and out of a lot of substitutions and keep up with Seattle -- it's just been my philosophy that that's not a good thing to do. You want to give your players the best chance to win the game. You don't want to think you're going to be the difference maker with every call as a perfect call. Every call is a good call and every call has the potential to be a bad call. You just want to put them out there and make sure they have an opportunity to execute."

Shouldn't the fact that the defense has a radio this year make substitutions easier?

Nolan: "It's not...no. Two seconds, three seconds, but that's not enough for what they set you back. They run as quick an operation as anybody in the league. They do a great job with it, a real compliment to them. People that aren't aware of that, playing Seattle, whether they are playing them at home or away, they need to be aware of that. They do an outstanding job. They really do."

To Nolan, the strategy worked. Matt Hasselbeck connected on only 50 percent of his passes, had no touchdowns and was held under 200 yards passing. And, of course, the 49ers won. Others (like me), however, were scratching heads. Hasselbeck had a rough day, they argue, because he had no receivers, not because of what the 49ers were doing defensively. The Seahawks' top four receivers didn't start the game and they lost two more - Seneca Wallace and Logan Payne - before the first quarter ended. And while the Seahawks struggled in the passing game, they had no trouble running the ball. Julius Jones ran for 127 yards, the second hundred-yard rusher the 49ers have allowed so far this season.

The bigger issue is that the "Big Sub" takes away perhaps the 49ers' biggest advantage - it's ability to dramatically chance its look and confuse the offense. It put Manny Lawson, ostensibly one of the 49ers' best players, on the sideline all game and limited Justin Smith, whose versatility has been ballyhooed all offseason, to playing along the defensive line. The 49ers went from chameleon to plane Jane. The question is with several pass-happy teams - Detroit, New Orleans, New England, Philadelphia and Seattle - looming on the schedule how much the 49ers will use it in the future.

Look for Seattle safety Brian Russell to be hit with a fine later this week. J.T. O'Sullivan was sacked eight times, but perhaps the hardest hit he absorbed came on a scramble. He slid feet first while safety Deon Grant took him down. But Russell came in late and gave O'Sullivan a shot to the facemask with the crown of his helmet. There was no penalty on the play.

Said Nolan: "There were a couple of hits on him that I thought some guys might get fined about. That's really concerned me more than anything else. Those kinds of things."

-- 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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