Grant Cohn: 49ers' Vic Fangio struggles with the hand he was dealt

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What is Vic Fangio supposed to do? Call plays while hopping on one leg?

Vic, try patting your head and rubbing your stomach in the coaches’ box. Say rubber baby buggy bumpers. Strike a pose.

The 49ers’ defensive coordinator is running out of options. He tried blitzing. He tried not blitzing. Neither has worked. The 49ers’ defense can’t stop the pass no matter what Fangio calls. Against Arizona last week, the 49ers gave up two touchdown catches and a 98.5 passer rating and sacked backup quarterback Drew Stanton exactly no times.

If blitzing and not blitzing failed against the Cardinals’ offense – ranked 15th in the NFL – how are the 49ers supposed to stop the Eagles’ offense? It ranks second.

Don’t blame Fangio if the Eagles score more than 30 on Sunday. Philadelphia has scored more than 30 points every game this season.

Fangio is the best coach on the 49ers. Fangio’s defenses were better than Harbaugh’s offenses the past three seasons. Fangio’s defenses were dominant. Harbaugh’s offenses were clever at times. It’s easy to be clever when there’s no pressure. Most of the time the offense had to score only about 19 points. The defense would win the game.

Fangio is six years older than Harbaugh. Fangio was the linebackers’ coach for the Saints and the defensive coordinator for the Panthers when Harbaugh still was playing quarterback.

Fangio is a throwback. He would fit right in on Vince Lombardi’s staff. Fangio comes from an era when coaches didn’t speak in code to the media, didn’t give empty praise to everyone, didn’t use 300 words to say mostly nothing. Fangio always says something and says it in the fewest words possible. He is plainspoken, straightforward, honest. Like a modern cowboy. He is above the bologna.

So when someone asked Fangio on Thursday what is the problem with the 49ers’ pass defense, Fangio enlightened us: “You can’t play good pass defense in this league without good pass rush. And they go hand in hand. You can’t have good pass rush without good coverage.”

“What do you think has been the bigger issue,” someone asked, “the pass rush or the coverage?”

“Both,” said Fangio.

“Equally?”

“Equally.”

Trying to pick which stinks more, the 49ers’ pass rush or the 49ers’ coverage, is like picking between blue cheese and gorgonzola.

Should Fangio take the blame for what the 49ers’ defense has become? Fangio has complete control over the defense – Jim Harbaugh said that in Arlington, Texas after the 49ers beat the Cowboys Week 1.

Is it Fangio’s fault the 49ers have bad pass rushers and bad cornerbacks this season? He doesn’t draft or sign players.

Trent Baalke drafted Jimmie Ward in the first round a few months ago. Ward played strong safety at Northern Illinois University where he made a reputation as an athletic, roving zone defender. Now he has to line up in the slot and cover some of the best receivers in football, has to use man coverage techniques that are alien to him. He’s out of his depth, a speck of dirt in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Is that Fangio’s fault?

Is it Fangio’s fault Chris Culliver couldn’t find a deep pass with a compass? He’s had this problem his entire pro career. Cannot turn his head and find the deep ball. A ruthless offensive coordinator would call deep passes in Culliver’s direction twice a quarter.

Like Ward, Culliver was a college safety whom Baalke drafted to play cornerback. Safeties don’t turn their heads to find the ball because the play is in front of them.

Is it Fangio’s fault Chris Cook has no technique and, as soon as he loses the receiver, he reaches out and hugs him? It’s like Cook is in love.

Is it Fangio’s fault Eric Reid’s helmet took out NaVorro Bowman’s knee?

Is it Fangio’s fault Aldon Smith drove his truck into a tree and charged admission to a party at his mansion like it was his parents’ house and they were on vacation, then shot illegal automatic rifles into the air to end the party and got suspended for the first nine games of the season?

Is it Fangio’s fault Ahmad Brooks is overweight, out of shape and has just one sack in three games?

Is it Fangio’s fault the other edge rushers Baalke acquired the last couple seasons – Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta – are bad edge rushers?

Really, what is Fangio supposed to do? Baalke dealt this hand.

Look at what Fangio is up against on Sunday. Ward will be on the field for 80 to 90 percent of the plays because the Eagles use a spread offense. The Eagles can go after him as much as they want.

Fangio also doesn’t have anyone who can cover Eagles’ running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles out of the backfield. McCoy and Sproles are two of the quickest tailbacks in football. Bowman could cover them, but Fangio doesn’t have Bowman. Fangio has Michael Wilhoite, Bowman’s backup, who doesn’t stand a chance against McCoy or Sproles. Fangio might have to replace Wilhoite with a cornerback, cover the Eagles’ running backs with someone quicker.

Fangio should be able to generate pressure early in the game – the Eagles already lost their starting left guard, center and right tackle to serious injuries. Justin Smith will line up across from the Eagle’s backup left guard on passing downs and should maul him in the first and second quarter.

But what happens in the third and fourth quarters if Smith gets tired? The Eagles run a no-huddle offense which prevents the opposing defense from substituting and resting the beef on its defensive line.

If Smith gets tired, it’s over. The Eagles will be able to take whatever they want from the 49ers’ defense. The 49ers’ need Smith to play the game of his life. He turns 35 on Tuesday.

Is that Fangio’s fault?

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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