San Francisco 49ers

49ers vs. Seahawks: If you can’t beat ’em, copy their defense

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Seattle Seahawks should be blushing this week as they watch film of their Sunday opponents.

Not only did the 49ers sign three former Seahawks in the offseason, they rebuilt their defense in Seattle’s image. Kyle Shanahan said he’s been a long-time admirer of Pete Carroll’s aggressive 4-3 system and became even more enamored after working opposite Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, a Carroll protégé, the last two years.

The defensive coordinator Shanahan hired in February, Robert Saleh, was an assistant in Seattle for three seasons, including 2013 when Quinn ran the Seahawks defense.

“It’s extremely tough to get explosive (plays) on,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “It’s tough to go against. They make you work for everything and it’s something that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every week. It’s something that if you do over and over and over again, it’s hard not to get better at it.”

The 49ers franchise, however, can claim at least some credit in the evolution of the scheme considering Carroll spent the 1995-96 seasons as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator under head coach George Seifert, who had spent six seasons running the 49ers defense.

In Seifert’s defenses, the 49ers’ designated pass rusher – from Fred Dean to Charles Haley to Chris Doleman – was known as the “Elephant end.”’ When Carroll moved on to the New England Patriots and USC, he changed “Elephant” to “Leo,” which is what the 49ers this season call Arik Armstead and Elvis Dumervil and any other pass rusher who lines up on the weak side of the offensive line.

“‘Elephant’ was just an e-word to designate a guy as being different from the regular defensive end,” Carroll said in 2010, according to the Seahawks’ website. “We adopted their term and made him an ‘L’ instead of an ‘E’.”

On Wednesday Carroll had a more elaborate story, one that involved pass rusher Israel Infeanyi, who was born in Nigeria and was the 49ers’ top draft pick in 1996.

“We brought him in the day we drafted him, and he called his father in Africa,” Carroll said on a conference call. “He said, ‘I’ve been drafted into the NFL. They want me to play ‘Elephant.’ And I never thought that father could ever understand what his kid was telling him right there: ‘I play in the NFL, and I’m now an elephant.’ 

Added Carroll: “So in time, we just adjusted the word. That’s all.”

Carroll said that he adapted to Seifert’s defense when he arrived in San Francisco for the sake of continuity and because the 49ers had had so much success over the previous decade.

But he said the biggest influence on him and his defense was Monte Kiffin. Carroll served as a graduate assistant for Kiffin, then the defensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas, in 1977. The Razorbacks went 11-1 that season, upset No. 2-ranked Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and finished with the nation’s third-best scoring defense, one that gave up an average of 8.6 points a game.

“That’s kind of where everything started for me,” Carroll said. “… I see the common thread going all the way back to Arkansas.”

Shanahan also has ties to Kiffin. His first NFL job was as an entry-level assistant in Tampa Bay in 2004-05 when Kiffin was the Buccaneers defensive coordinator. Kiffin landed that job in 1996, meaning he was 49ers general manager John Lynch’s defensive coordinator for a big chunk of Lynch’s career.

“I got a real good feel for that defense and the whole time I was there, they were number one in the NFL on defense and I think that’s really where it started,” Shanahan said. “Then going against this defense as an offensive coordinator, just trying to attack it, I think it’s extremely similar to those ‘Tampa Two,’ Monte Kiffin days.”

The reason Carroll’s defense is so tough to crack, Shanahan said, is because it sticks eight players close to the line of scrimmage to stifle the opposing running game. At the same time, it stations a free safety deep down the middle of the field to prevent deep throws over the top.

Shanahan’s Falcons faced Seattle’s defense twice last season, a Week 6 loss in Seattle and then a win in Atlanta in the divisional round of the playoffs. A number of his current players, including quarterback Brian Hoyer, never have faced Seattle before much less played them in deafening CenturyLink Field.

“They have great players and they run a really good scheme and they play it really well,” Hoyer said. “I don’t think I can compliment them enough. I think it’s a great combination of scheme and players. They’ve been playing it for a long time and they play it really well.”

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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