Success with Baltimore was a key factor in the hiring.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Coach Mike Nolan didn't think twice about changing the San Francisco 49ers' base defense from the traditional 4-3, because the 3-4 alignment plays to the strength of his defensive personnel -- the linebackers.
What happened a year ago, be damned.
"If somebody else was or was not successful, that really doesn't change my view," Nolan said Monday.
A year ago, the 49ers, then under different management, were considering a move to the 3-4. The plan was abandoned for a couple of reasons -- namely a winless exhibition season and Julian Peterson's contract holdout. For instance, Peterson's absence forced Derek Smith, an inside linebacker in any scheme, to the outside, a position for which he was neither comfortable nor physically equipped.
After seeing his team give up 107 points in four exhibitions, Coach Dennis Erickson reverted to the 4-3 defense -- and the 49ers wound up surrendering a league-high 452 points, one below the team record, en route to the 2-14 disaster that cost Erickson his job.
Nolan was hired in part because of his success with the 3-4 as Baltimore's defensive coordinator.
"You've got probably 25 teams doing a 4-3 and somebody is going to be good and somebody is not going to be good," he said. "So, I wouldn't make it a reflection at all of whether it's 3-4 or 4-3. It's more of a reflection of everything you do around it."
Translation and transition
It's more than just three down linemen and four linebackers, too. The alignment is the defensive equivalent of the multiple-option offense, allowing for the kind of creativity that causes confusion for opposing blockers. The 49ers are well-stocked for the scheme with inside linebackers such as Smith and Jeff Ulbrich and fleet outsiders such as Peterson, Jamie Winborn and Andre Carter.
Bryant Young, who has moved from tackle to end in the 3-4, said there has been a notable difference this year in the installation of the 3-4.
"I think guys are feeling better about it because they understand it a lot better," Young said. "They're not making it complicated and they're explaining it as clearly as possible without causing any confusion."
Young said the 49ers also have brought in key personnel to help pull off the transition. In addition to Nolan, as well as linebackers coach Mike Singletary, defensive end Marques Douglas was brought in from Baltimore as a free agent. Another factor is the development of nose tackles Isaac Sopoaga and Anthony Adams. The position is central to the 3-4 scheme; the nose tackle must hold the point and occupy blockers so the linebackers can flow to the ball and make tackles.
There also is the matter of Nolan's commitment to the change.
As Young put it: "They came in and said look, 'We're running a 3-4,' whereas last year it was, 'We're going to see how the 3-4 works for us.' That's the difference that I see. And from a personnel standpoint, I don't think we had the guys then that we have now to help us make the change."
The first dry run -- Saturday's exhibition game against the Raiders -- provided mixed results. In the 21-13 victory, the 49ers twice held Oakland to a field goal, but only after drives deep into their territory.
"Our objective is not just to say, 'OK, let them go out there and kick a field goal,' " Smith said. "Our objective is to get them to go three-and-out. That's something we want to improve on. We want to get more three-and-outs and get the ball back to the offense."