Ryan Pace’s decision to trade for two-time All-Pro pass rusher and 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack to bolster possibly the only weakness on a potential top-10 defense returning 10 of 11 starters, may go down as one of the most memorable moves in franchise history.
All of the sudden all those nights that fans went to bed wondering how Vic Fangio was going to manufacture pressure on opposing quarterbacks meant nothing anymore. The Bears now have a guy who can change the course of a game single-handedly in Mack.
In order to understand how he can make Fangio’s unit one of the best in the league, let’s take look at how Fangio’s defenses have fared since 2011, his first year in San Francisco. (Note: For team pressure stats I used the pressure stats as well as the DVOA rankings from footballoutsiders.com)
In Fangio’s first year as the 49ers defensive coordinator, his defense ranked fourth in yards, second in points, and first in takeaways. No matter what you think of “traditional stats” those are impressive numbers for a defense that led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship game.
However, while Fangio’s defense ranked an outstanding third overall in pressure rate according to Football Outsiders, they actually fared really well when they had no pressure on the quarterback. The defense ranked just 26th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), which takes an all-encompassing look such as down-and-distance, time, score and the opponent’s strengths to measure defenses when pressuring the quarterback. They were 10th overall in DVOA when they generated zero pressure on the quarterback.
They could withstand their poor performance while creating pressure because opposing quarterbacks had 467 passing plays without pressure and only 187 against pressure.
In 2012, possibly Fangio’s best year as a defensive coordinator, his defense ranked third in yards, second in points and 14th in takeaways, which again are all good to excellent numbers. Yet the defense was just 19th in pressure rate when pressuring the quarterback on just 20.2 percent of passing plays. The defense ranked 12th in DVOA with pressure but fourth without pressure. The 49ers made the Super Bowl in 2012 thanks in large part to Fangio’s defense.
Consider this: If the opposing quarterback was under pressure 20.2 percent of the time, or 127 plays, that means he faced no pressure 79.8 percent of the time, or 501 plays. Based on sheer volume alone being able to succeed as a defense without pressuring the quarterback is just as important if not more than getting pressure on the QB in the first place. This helps to explain why despite the pedestrian pressure rate, the 2012 49ers were still a great defense.
Another reason Fangio’s defenses succeed without getting pressure is because opposing teams felt as though they have to gameplan to prevent pressure. To counter, offenses call quick passing concepts based on timing; however, aggressive cornerback play can help to mitigate those quick concepts, so expect to see a lot of press coverage in 2018.
In Fangio’s third year in San Francisco, the 49ers defense came in at fifth in yards, third in points and sixth in takeaways. They finished the season ranking 13th in pressure rate and for the first time in his three years as the defensive coordinator, the team’s DVOA was better with pressure than without (second overall w/ pressure and 12th without).
In terms of overall defensive performance, this was the 49ers worst year in Fangio’s four years in San Francisco. For the first and only time the overall defense ranked outside of the top five ending the year ranked 13th.
The 2014 49ers defense was an injury-riddled one, particularly within the front seven. But the unit still saw the defense rank fifth in DVOA. The team ranked a respectable ninth in pressure rate but only 15th in DVOA with pressure and 26th without pressure.
As you can see in this chart there really is no correlation between getting pressure on the quarterback and the success of Fangio’s defenses as a whole. However, there does seem to be a correlation between stopping the run and having a high ranking defense.
This has also been true with the Chicago Bears under Fangio, whose defensive efficiency has improved as the run defense has improved. It also must be stated that this improvement has also come with Pace adding more talent to the defensive unit.
While getting pressure on the quarterback may be priority 1A for defenses, stopping the run and forcing a team to be one-dimensional needs to be 1B.
Will Mack help the Bears in this area?
That answer is a resounding yes as he is arguably the best defensive player in football in the same class as Aaron Donald and Von Miller.
While Mack is known for getting to the quarterback, he is just as elite stopping the run, quite possibly the best in the game at his position. Mack consistently ranks near the top of Pro Football Focus’ run stops. He has always been a prolific run stopper as his NCAA record 75 career tackles for loss speaks for itself, and fellow 2014 draft classmate Aaron Donald is number three on that list with 66 tackles for loss.
In terms of rushing the passer, Mack is as consistent as they come getting pressure on the quarterback ranking second, first and third according to Pro Football Focus’ pressure count over the past three years.
In 2012, there were 18 defenses who pressured the quarterback at a higher rate than Fangio’s 49ers defense. With stopping the run and limiting big plays, the unit was an elite defense in 2012.
It seems as though stopping the run on defense could very well be more critical to seeing a good defense in Chicago for the 2018 season. Mack will only help the run defense allowing Fangio to play two-high safeties, which has always been his preference.
In no way is it hyperbole to suggest that Mack will make every other player on this defense better. That is what complete defensive players do.
Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson are all potential Pro Bowlers who might see that potential come to fruition in 2018 because Pace went out and added an All-Pro talent.
After four years of Pace assembling talent, Fangio finally has enough, and possibly more, to duplicate the successes he had in San Francisco in Chicago.