SANTA CLARA — They call him The Godfather.
He was the godfather of the 49ers’ great defenses from 2011 to 2014, their defensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh. The guy the 49ers didn’t promote to head coach after Harbaugh left for Michigan. The one they let get away.
Now, he’s coming to Levi’s stadium for vengeance this Sunday.
He is Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and he is a contender for the Associated Press’ NFL Assistant Coach of the Year Award. One of the best defensive minds in the NFL, along with LA Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
Although he’s called The Godfather, there’s nothing flashy about Fangio. He’s quiet, always thinking. Always planning his defense. He is easygoing and approachable and, on a football field, almost impossible to figure out. Harbaugh let Fangio run his defense, no questions asked.
And his players treated him like a godfather, with that kind of respect, above and beyond the normal coach. Players such as Justin Smith and Patrick Willis actually referred to Fangio as The Godfather, meaning he’s the one we want leading us into a gunfight.
Under Fangio, the Bears’ defense has forced a league-high 35 turnovers and currently ranks third out of 32 teams in fewest yards allowed. Fangio is on the verge of his fifth season coaching a top-five defense since 2011. He would tie Carroll for having the most top-five defenses in that time.
“Vic’s unique,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Whatever you think you have on him, he has a counter off it.”
Shanahan went on to say that if an offense does well on a play, Fangio will immediately adjust and eliminate that play for the rest of the game. “So, you’ve got to keep playing the game within the game,” Shanahan said.
When Shanahan became the 49ers’ head coach in 2017, he tried to hire Fangio as his defensive coordinator. But Fangio was under contract with the Bears, so Shanahan hired Robert Saleh.
In Chicago, Fangio basically runs the same defensive scheme he ran with the 49ers. And it’s not a flashy scheme. It’s old school, predicated on discipline, players knowing their assignments and being in the right place at the right time.
“There will always be tweaks based on your personnel,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said on a conference call. “But in the general big picture, you normally don’t stray away from what you know.”
So, what exactly does Fangio know? What makes his defense unique and special?
“It’s not risky,” Shanahan said. “They keep everything boxed in. They’re very good in their front seven. They have big guys inside who don’t have to move at all because of how well they set the edge on the outside. And they play physical. They’ve always had a pass rush. They have some pressure (schemes), but rarely run pressures that make their coverages vulnerable.”
Meaning Fangio rarely blitzes, because he rarely has to. The Bears can pressure quarterbacks by rushing just four defenders. They have Leonard Floyd (four sacks), Aaron Lynch (three sacks), Akiem Hicks (six sacks) and NFL MVP candidate Khalil Mack (12½ sacks) — yes, that Khalil Mack. Collectively, the Bears have 45 sacks this season — tied for fourth most in the NFL.