Big day forecast for 49er defense
January 04, 2003
WITH RECENT history as the guide, look for the 49ers' defense to take chances against the New York Giants in Sunday's NFC playoff game.
The defense has to react to the offense it sees. "If you're playing a team like Kansas City that does a lot of shifting before the snap," said 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora, "you have to be very basic in your defense.
"Teams like that use motion to disguise their plays. You can look at films and see that they're pretty much running the same plays every week but with different motion. You want to be sure you're set for the plays, so you can't let yourself react to every change."
Against a more basic offense, a defense can take risks. For the 49ers, the most obvious example was their game against the Dallas Cowboys, in which Mora deployed some very unorthodox defensive schemes, especially with the way he moved linebacker Julian Peterson around the field.
The Cowboys had to stay basic because they had an inexperienced quarterback,
Chad Hutchinson, and an offensive line that had been weakened by injuries.
"We knew there was nothing they could throw at us that we couldn't handle," Mora said, "so we could pretty much do what we wanted. We were even drawing up defenses on the sidelines."
The Giants have a basic offense, but a much better one, obviously, than the Cowboys. "They rely on execution," Mora said. "They have a very good offensive line and an experienced quarterback (Kerry Collins) who isn't very mobile but is hard to bring down because he's so big. He's as big as Andre Carter!
"I think Amani Toomer is one of the most underrated wide receivers, and (tight end) Jeremy Shockey has obviously had a huge impact."
The 49ers' defense won't be as wild as it was against Dallas because the Giants have too many weapons. Peterson's primary responsibility probably will be to try to slow down Shockey, as he did with Tony Gonzalez of the Chiefs.
But it's also likely that Mora will throw some unexpected defensive schemes at the Giants to try to disrupt their offensive rhythm. "We put some of the things we did against the Cowboys in our total package," he said.
Mora often talks about the "cat and mouse" game between offense and defense,
and he watches carefully what goes on around the league.
"This is such a copycat league," he said. "When one team comes up with something that works, everybody else tries to do the same thing. Tampa Bay was successful with a basic defense (two-deep zone), so everybody was using that, for instance."
In recent years, defenses had taken the lead because the blitz packages, many of them very unorthodox, had disrupted offenses, especially those that tried to move steadily down the field instead of trying to get big plays. Lately, though, offensive coordinators have been striking back with different techniques and formations, including the no-huddle.
"For a while, every team seemed to be going to an 'empty' backfield (no running backs behind the quarterback)," Mora said. "Now, they're starting to get away from that a little, but you still see a lot of different formations and motion.
"I think defenses are going more basic now to try to counter that. That can be hard. You don't want to be jumping out of position because of motion but at the same time, you don't want to sit back on your heels and lose your aggressiveness."
Mora loves the game between offense and defense, and he loves the noise and emotion of football. Other coordinators sit upstairs and call down plays, but Mora is always on the sideline.
"I want to feel the emotion," he said, "and be able to talk to the players. All week long, I'm in front of the players at meetings and I don't want to leave during the game. When Tim McDonald was here, he always said he wanted to hear my voice."
In our conversations since he's been the coordinator, I've always had the feeling that Mora likes to use more pressure defenses. This year, he's been limited because injuries in the defensive backfield and at linebacker have weakened the defense, so cutting off big plays has often been the top priority.
"Losing (linebacker) Jamie Winborn and (safety) Zack Bronson really hurt, because they're big playmakers," he said. Winborn is still out, but Bronson will return for Sunday's game.
With his defense reasonably healthy, I expect Mora to have his players taking more chances and going for the big play Sunday. The 49ers' chances depend on how successful they are.
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