San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Can defense gain its footing? It’s been done before

Video: Matt Barrows on 5 things to watch when the 49ers play Arizona

Matt Barrows' five things to keep an eye on when the San Francisco 49ers play against the Arizona Cardinals. Video by Manny Crisostomo The Sacramento Bee
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Matt Barrows' five things to keep an eye on when the San Francisco 49ers play against the Arizona Cardinals. Video by Manny Crisostomo The Sacramento Bee

In Week 2 of the 2011 season, the 49ers gave up a 77-yard pass play in overtime, which led to a game-winning chip-shot field goal by the Dallas Cowboys. Safety Donte Whitner was over-aggressive on a run fake, allowing the Cowboys receiver an uncontested catch and a free path to the edge of the end zone.

The 49ers also allowed a 53-yard pass play and three more of 25 yards, and quarterbacks Tony Romo, who suffered a rib injury but returned, and Jon Kitna combined for 427 passing yards.

The 49ers’ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week was worse. If the 49ers’ offense had been able to keep pace, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might have been able to pass for 500 yards. He had 252 yards at halftime and finished with 369 – including passes of 59, 56, 48, 41, 35 and 28 yards – and three touchdown passes in the 43-18 rout.

The common thread is that both losses happened when a newly assembled defense was trying to find its footing.

There were plenty of problems Sunday in Pittsburgh, especially safeties who were either late arriving on deep passes or, in the case of Antoine Bethea in the second quarter, had a Steelers wide receiver blow past him for a touchdown.

There really is a growth that goes into any defense because the coaches are learning about the guys, they’re learning about us. We’re figuring out as we go the things we do really well, things we don’t do as well. ... Each week, it’s going to get better. It’s a group of guys who, for the most part, are new to each other.

Eric Mangini, 49ers defensive coordinator

The 49ers also tried to be clever, sending safety Eric Reid close to the line of scrimmage to make Roethlisberger think he could throw deep and then having Reid dart back into coverage as the ball was snapped. This is one of the “disguises” that is indicative of Eric Mangini’s defense.

Reid, however, didn’t retreat fast enough to prevent a long reception down the sideline, and the 49ers ended up outfoxing themselves. After the game, the storyline was that Roethlisberger, the crafty veteran quarterback, figured out the coverages that had flummoxed newcomer Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings a week earlier. But it was more that Roethlisberger decided not to engage in mind games and instead played aggressively.

“They were giving us a lot of different looks, bringing their safeties down, and we thought, ‘Let’s not over-think ourselves,’ ” Roethlisberger said after the game. “‘Let’s just call a play and live with it. Call a safe play and just live with it. Make them adjust to us.’”

After the crushing loss to the Cowboys in 2011, the 49ers played their next two games on the road, and no one gave them much of a chance. They narrowly won those games and then the next six, a stretch that propelled them into the playoffs. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense coalesced and recovered. By the end of the season, it had allowed 229 points – second best in the league – and led the NFL in takeaways.

The question now is how quickly Mangini’s defense, which is by every account more complex with more moving parts, can find its groove.

“There really is a growth that goes into any defense because the coaches are learning about the guys, they’re learning about us,” Mangini said. “We’re figuring out as we go the things we do really well, things we don’t do as well. ... Each week, it’s going to get better. It’s a group of guys who, for the most part, are new to each other.”

The Arizona Cardinals, Sunday’s opponent, haven’t allowed a sack – the 49ers didn’t get to Roethlisberger last week – and have scored the most points in the NFL through two games.

Quarterback Carson Palmer has a 124.4 passer rating and he’s thrown a league-high seven touchdown passes. After Palmer, the 49ers will take on Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who has a 128.4 passer rating. Mangini said he expects to be attacked with more downfield passing.

“It’s such a copycat league,” he said. “It’s like anything else – whenever you get hit on something, they’re going to try to hit you again. The next team will and the team after that will. ... Until you go out and show that it’s fixed, they’ll keep pressing.”

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

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