49ers defense vows to stay dominant after big stars depart
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Linebacker Michael Wilhoite calls him ''Mangenius.''
That nickname for Niners defensive coordinator Eric Mangini might just catch on if San Francisco can replicate its defensive shutdown of Minnesota this weekend against a tougher test: on the road at Pittsburgh in a short week.
''With all the tools that we installed in OTAs and fall camp, we just showed a small package of what we can do,'' Wilhoite said. ''There's a lot of stuff Mangenius has, and a lot of tricks up his sleeve.''
Wilhoite is unconcerned with who is no longer on San Francisco's menacing defense long known as one of the NFL's toughest. He insists the mentality will stay the same regardless of personnel and major alterations.
Mangini appreciates the compliments, but knows how fast things can change in this league.
''Well, I hope he was using in a complimentary way, not ironically,'' Mangini said Friday. ''You have a good week, you get positive things, and if you don't, then that name changes. I've heard other variations of my last name. They weren't as friendly and as positive.''
''That's been the mentality and identity we've had here for a long time, when I got here with (Jim) Harbaugh, and that was kind of set with Justin and Pat and those guys that have left us,'' Wilhoite said. ''But I think we kept it here. We'd like to think that we're one of the best teams at playing that style of football and that's lining up man to man and just playing physical and hitting people. We showed we can play that kind of football.''
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer credited San Francisco for being far more physical in the 20-3 victory, and that meant a lot to first-year coach Jim Tomsula - who actually interviewed with Minnesota when it hired Zimmer last year.
Tomsula was promoted from defensive line coach to replace Harbaugh.
''I speak for the guys, that's a compliment to them. In terms of an identity, I just want us to be who we are, and our locker room is, what I believe, a tough-minded, physically tough and mentally tough group of guys,'' Tomsula said. ''It's a test of wills.''
For the 49ers, that test of wills began months ago when Willis retired, then Borland after his standout rookie year, followed by veteran Justin Smith. Aldon Smith was released Aug. 7 following another legal run-in and signed last week with the Oakland Raiders.
Mangini's scheme was a lot to master, too.
''He gives us a ton of information and it was difficult at first,'' Wilhoite said. ''We're professional athletes. If you challenge us we're going to try to rise to it. That's why we're here and that's why we're in the position being 1-0 and playing really well on defense, because we embraced the challenge that he placed in front of us in learning so much information. We attacked it head-on.''
Now, NaVorro Bowman is back after he missed all of last season recovering from left knee surgery from an injury sustained in the NFC championship game at Seattle in January 2014.
''You could tell he was in his element, he was in a zone, he was where he's supposed to be,'' Wilhoite said. ''He shined.''
Bowman ,who played all but one snap when he needed a break after a hit to the groin, and safety Antoine Bethea each had seven tackles and a sack Monday. Five players recorded sacks in all.
''Just as many people as we lost we gained as many people,'' said cornerback Kenneth Acker, who made his NFL debut Monday after missing his rookie season of 2014 with a stress fracture in his left foot. ''We're just trying to get on the same level.''
So, pressure's on for ''Mangenius'' to keep it rolling - even if he doesn't like any added attention. As Tomsula notes, ''I don't think Eric really likes that nickname, to be honest with you.''
''That's my name for him,'' Wilhoite said. ''We'll let it build. It's only been one week, we've got 16 more. So after that we'll see where it goes from there.''
NOTES: RB Reggie Bush wasn't scheduled to travel to Pittsburgh for Sunday's game in order to continue treatment on his injured left calf he sustained in the first quarter of Monday's opener. ''We feel great about it can get back to 100 percent, fast,'' Tomsula said Friday ... WR Bruce Ellington (ankle) stretched with the team, then came off the field to be examined by the medical staff. Former Australian rugby league star Jarryd Hayne could be returning punts again.
Associated Press freelance writer Chris Biderman contributed to this report.
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