49ers review: Defensive line

49ers review: Defensive line
February 2, 2012, 5:50 pm
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This is the third installment of a nine-part series that reviews every 49ers player and position group.The 49ers made a decision to re-sign non-starting defensive lineman Ray McDonald to a contract that fellow free agent Aubrayo Franklin, the team's franchise player the previous year, would've gladly accepted. It was a decision that ended up strengthening two positions on the 49ers' defensive line. McDonald, the recipient of a five-year, 20 million deal, was outstanding as an every-down player on the left side of the defensive line. And veteran Isaac Sopoaga moved to the nose tackle, replacing Franklin. He also provided an upgrade. Oh, yeah, and the 49ers' defensive line also featured a guy named Smith -- Justin Smith. Grade: A
Justin Smith -- He was the unquestioned team MVP. He did everything well and should be a top candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was more than just solid. He made every play, he fulfilled every duty. And then he went above and beyond. He gave himself up, taking out two offensive lineman on several occasions, to open the door for Aldon Smith to get sacks. Justin Smith recorded 7.5 sacks of his own, and ranked third on the team with 105 tackles (by the 49ers' count). That's an amazing number for a 3-4 defensive lineman. He ran down speedy wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to force a game-saving fumble at Philadelphia. He batted down an Eli Manning last-chance pass to preserve the regular-season win over the Giants. He man-handled New Orleans left tackle Jermon Bushrod in the playoffs. It's impossible to poke holes in Smith's season.Isaac Sopoaga -- As a nose tackle, a lot of the job consists of dirty work. Sopoaga did not pile up great stats. He was seventh on the team in tackles. But Sopoaga did an excellent job of clogging the middle and keeping offensive linemen from getting to the second level to block inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. The 49ers ranked third in the NFL, allowing just 3.2 yards a carry, on run plays up the middle. That is a direct reflection on Sopoaga's ability to hold the point and stand his ground against the power run game.
Ray McDonald -- Aside from times when he was bothered by hamstring strains, McDonald rarely came off the field this season. There were games in which he played every defensive snap. McDonald worked out daily with Justin Smith during the lockout, so it was no surprise that both men were in the kind of physical condition that would allow them to play so much. McDonald was fourth on the team with 93 tackles. He recorded 5.5 sacks and had a team-high 14.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. McDonald ranked behind only Justin Smith with 62 quarterback pressures and 45 hits on the quarterback. And McDonald was at his best in the NFC Championship Game with 2.5 sacks of Manning.Ricky Jean Francois -- As the top backup across the defensive line, Jean Francois played well when called upon. He started at nose tackle against Tampa Bay and recorded six tackles. He started on the left side against Washington and had five tackles. He saw most of his action at nose tackle during the course of a game to give Sopoaga a break. Next season, he figures to be a bigger part of the rotation, so that the 49ers can give each of their defensive linemen periodic rests throughout a game. Demarcus Dobbs -- The undrafted rookie from Georgia earned his way onto the team with a strong training camp, which included a couple sacks in the exhibition season. He appeared in 12 regular-season games, and saw limited action on defense with just three tackles. Dobbs had a role on special teams, including on kickoff coverage, in the two playoff games. (He also saw one snap of offense but whiffed on a block.) But the 49ers felt compelled to use him in those ways because of his unique skills. After all, it's not often you see a 275-pounder with enough athleticism to run down the field on kick coverage. Ian Williams -- He went undrafted out of Notre Dame, but there was a lot of competition for his services as a free agent. Williams decided to sign with the 49ers. The 49ers kept him around after final cuts to give him a chance to develop. He played in just one game all season, recording a tackle against Tampa Bay on Oct. 9. So he'll get his chance to prove he can contribute in 2012.Will Tukuafu -- He earned a spot on the 53-man roster with a solid training camp. And he was among the five active defensive linemen for the first four games of the regular season. But Tukuafu's season came to an end when he sustained a right wrist injury while blocking on a kickoff return Oct. 2 against the Eagles. He'll be able to participate in the entire offseason program.

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