SANTA CLARA – Even before the 49ers’ decision to release outside linebacker Aldon Smith, new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini was devising ways to generate more pressure on the quarterback.
Now, all the scheming will likely be a necessity without a player on the field who appeared determined this offseason to re-establish himself as one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL. After all, Smith recorded 44 sacks in 50 career games. The 49ers released Smith on Friday after he had his fifth run-in with the law since the offseason of his rookie year. Smith was arrested for DUI, hit and run, and vandalism, Santa Clara Police said.
Through the first eight practices of training camp, the 49ers’ pass rush has clearly given the team’s offense plenty of fits with its wide array of blitzes. Mangini has put an emphasis on attempting to create more confusion for opposing offenses.
“He’s done more blitzes this offseason than we’ve seen in, like, the previous six combined,” 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said.
Former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio preferred a different method.
Fangio had his team prepared for tendencies and often had the defense alerted to specific plays the opposition would run in critical situations. His defenses blitzed less than almost any team in the league, as he preferred a four-man rush and basic coverages. The results were typically one of the top statistical defenses in the league that rarely gave up big plays.
Mangini appears more likely to try to outfox the opposition with X’s and O’s. The 49ers do not have anyone remaining on the roster who has ever reached double-digits in sacks.
Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks recorded a career-high 8.5 sacks in 2013. Darnell Dockett, expected to be a nickel pass-rusher, recorded nine sacks in 2007. Glenn Dorsey has six career sacks in seven seasons. The 49ers are going to need some combination of young players, including Aaron Lynch, Corey Lemonier, Eli Harold, Tank Carradine and first-round pick Arik Armstead, to step up and produce.
“A guy like Aldon is not a guy that you just can replace,” Mangini said. “He’s got a unique skillset. One of the things that we focused on defensively is building flexibility, in terms of what we can play and then building flexibility with who’s going to play there.
“Corey’s gotten a lot of reps, Aaron Lynch, he’s starting to get back out there, but he did some really good things last year. You’ve got a guy like Eli, who’s shown some real promise here early and we’ve been moving those parts around to play left and right so we wouldn’t have to play guys in the same spot the whole time. I think the defense has some flexibility built into it as well. You can’t easily replace someone of that caliber, but we’ll find ways collectively to get that done and there are great opportunities. There’s great opportunities for guys who made have had more limited roles had he been here.”
Mangini, 44, has spent just one previous season as a defensive coordinator. After running the New England Patriots’ defense under Bill Belichick in 2005, Mangini had consecutive stints as head coach of the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns that lasted a combined five seasons. After two years out of coaching, Mangini returned to the NFL in 2013 as a 49ers’ offensive consultant. Last year, he served as the team’s tight ends coach.
“I had two years recently on offense that gave me insight from a game-planning perspective and from a scheme perspective and it’s hard to do when you’re in one role,” Mangini said. “I’ve actually been very fortunate to be able to play those other roles, to be in those other roles, to hear the conversations, to hear the thought process, to look at it through a different set of eyes so that when I came back in this role, I’ve got a fresh set of eyes and perspective at going into this my first time at it I didn’t have. So, that’s been huge for me.”
Mangini is surrounded by plenty of experience on the defensive staff. Secondary coach Tim Lewis, linebackers coach Clancy Pendergast and senior defensive assistant/linebackers Jason Tarver all have served previously as NFL defensive coordinators.