SANTA CLARA — Justin Smith's game-saving strip of Philadelphia Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin showed everything the San Francisco 49ers want on defense: heart, hustle and smarts.
All of it is part of the 49ers' plan.
San Francisco's ball-hawking defense has 11 takeaways this season to push the team's turnover ratio to plus-eight, which is tied with Detroit for the NFL's best. The remarkable turnaround under new coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is no accident.
The 49ers (3-1) spend time each week watching videos and photos of the running backs and receivers they'll face, learning their tendencies and ball-carrying habits. The turnover ratio is one of the biggest reasons the Niners lead the NFC West by two games already, and they hope to continue that success Sunday when Tampa Bay (3-1) comes to Candlestick Park.
"We watch a little highlight reel of how guys carry the ball," said safety Dashon Goldson, who recovered Maclin's fumble with 2:06 left to seal the 24-23 comeback victory at Philadelphia. "We show a lot of those guys and how careless they are with the football. Some of the guys we've faced, we knew the opportunities were there."
For all the chatter about the offense's second-half improvement against the Eagles, the most noticeable strides in San Francisco's young season have come on defense.
The Niners finished 16th in the league last year with a minus-one turnover ratio under Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker whom San Francisco's brass believed could bring a defense-first mentality. Instead, that never materialized. Singletary was fired with one week left in the season, the 49ers finished 6-10 and missed the playoffs for the eighth straight year.
Fangio's pass-rushing 3-4 scheme has been a welcome change around 49ers headquarters.
Players believe it allows them more freedom, and there might be no greater example of that than Smith's strip. The 290-pound defensive tackle chased the speedy Maclin down from behind and popped the ball loose near the sideline, a play that already has become a lasting image this season for 49ers faithful.
"For him to have that type of energy and hustle at that time of the game, knowing how his body had to be feeling at that point, speaks volumes about him as a person," Fangio said. "That's a play that, I think, that's the defensive equivalent of &‘The Catch.' Now &‘The Catch' happened in an NFC Championship game, which added to the luster. This was the fourth regular-season game. But it was a tremendous effort."
Smith's strip might not be a fair comparison to the famous reception by Dwight Clark from Joe Montana to beat the Cowboys in the 1982 NFC title game at Candlestick. Fangio, however, hopes it leaves an impression on the rest of his players that his methodology works.
"We've tried to make it a big point of emphasis for our team this year," Fangio said.Smith credited the advanced film work by the coaching staff during the week for the forced fumble. When Maclin took the screen pass from Michael Vick and sprinted 17 yards, Smith never stopped giving chase.
He said after the game he knew just how loosely Maclin carried the ball, what arm the receiver preferred to hold the ball and the best moment to reach out and punch it loose.