The defense turned into one of the league’s best with coordinator Vic Fangio pulling the strings. The addition of a premier pass rusher off the edge looked like a finishing touch that helped solidify the team as a real Super Bowl contender.
Those are true for both the 2011 49ers and the current Chicago Bears, who come to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday after clinching the NFC North title with a victory over the Green Bay Packers last week.
The Bears are playing a similar brand of football to Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco clubs anchored by Fangio’s imposing defenses, and they hope it can be enough to supplant some of the high-flying offenses in the NFC, similar to the 49ers’ run to the Super Bowl a year later in 2012.
It was the addition of seventh-overall draft pick Aldon Smith off the edge that provided San Francisco a boost that helped the defense improve from 13th overall to fourth. Smith had 14 sacks playing next to human cinder block Justin Smith in the middle, who helped Aldon by taking on offensive linemen on the inside.
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The Bears made a similar addition just before Week 1 with the trade with the Raiders for star defensive end Khalil Mack, who has 12 1/2 sacks in 12 games and is a candidate for his second NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
Mack has been the catalyst in Chicago’s improvement from 10th in total defense last season to third, making a similar jump to San Francisco in 2011. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who was named to the Pro Bowl this week, is playing the Justin Smith role for Mack by dominating the interior.
“Those were some defense that flew around,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said of Fangio’s 49ers defenses. “... It was everywhere at every position. And (Fangio) doesn’t go crazy with what he does. He lets his guys play fast and then they make plays when they get a chance. Vic does a really good job and I’m really lucky to have him.”
The 49ers threw their hats in the ring for Mack when the Raiders made him available in August.
Both general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan have indicated their offer to Oakland was similar to the package the Bears gave up: first-round draft picks in 2019 and 2020, a third-round pick in 2020 and a 2019 sixth-rounder. The Raiders included a 2020 second-round choice and conditional fifth-rounder.
Lynch believes the 49ers offered more than Chicago.
“I continue to (believe that),” Lynch said in an interview on 95.7 The Game last month.
But the Raiders might have been leery of sending Mack to their Bay Area counterparts, particular amid criticism for the club’s looming move to Las Vegas.
“I think you’d have to ask the Raiders,” Shanahan said Wednesday about the 49ers’ offer. “But it takes two teams to get it done and we went as hard as we could on it.”
The decision to give up four draft picks, including in the first round the next two seasons, wasn’t necessarily an easy one for Chicago. Nagy said they stewed on the decision for a while before pulling the trigger, presumably while other teams like the 49ers were driving up the price.
“Number one, you got to get approval from ownership and you got to see where they’re at,” Nagy said. “And then number two, you got to figure out the crunching of the numbers. And then the third part was really the easy part, that’s the knowing what type of player he is.
“This isn’t just a normal trade.”
The results with Chicago indicate Mack’s addition to the 49ers would have been a massive boon for the franchise. San Francisco is in danger of setting a new record for fewest interceptions in a season with just two. The previous mark, three by the Houston Oilers in 1982, came during a strike-shortened season that was just nine games long.
The Bears increased their interceptions from eight to 26 this season, the most in the NFL (the Miami Dolphins are second with 20). No team has had that many picks since the Seattle Seahawks recorded 28 in 2013, the season they won the Super Bowl.
Mack’s ability to provide pressure off the edge, where the 49ers are lacking, has been a major factor, even if Nagy isn’t fully willing to admit it.
“Some people would say, ‘Maybe there’s some luck involved.’ I don’t know, maybe there is,” he said. “And then there’s some scheme involved and there’s a lot of production. So the players are doing it, they’re performing it, they’re trusting everything and then they’re opportunistic. And when they get a chance to get that football, they get it.”
The game Sunday should prove the 49ers’ need for a game-changing pass rusher, like Mack or Aldon Smith back during the years of Super Bowl contention.