49ers review: Defensive line

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49ers review: Defensive line

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.

49ers specialists get drenched in preparations for inclement weather

49ers specialists get drenched in preparations for inclement weather

CHICAGO – The 49ers trained for the expected low-30s temperature and snow at Soldier Field with a week of workouts in the 80-degree heat of Florida.

However, the team’s specialists got some practice handling wet footballs during the 49ers’ final practice in Orlando, Fla.

Special-teams coordinator Derius Swinton and his assistant, Michael Clay, made a game of it. Long-snapper Kyle Nelson had to execute 10 perfect snaps to holder Bradley Pinion for field goals. Then, Pinion moved back to punt formation, where another 10 in a row were required.

But they had to be perfect while Swinton and Clay squirted water on the ball and at the hands of Nelson and Pinion, who also received a blast of water in his ear hole at one point.

“We always look up to see if there’s a chance of rain or snow, and we go, ‘Wet-ball drill,’ ” Nelson said. “They (Swinton and Clay) get to have fun, squirting water on us and use the water bottles.

“They make it as bad as possible.”

Nelson and Pinion teamed up to execute perfectly on all 20 field goals and punts.

“If I can do this, in a game it’s going to be even easier,” Nelson said. “They make it a lot harder in practice than it is in a game, so when we get to a game, everything is not as fast.”

The weather conditions on Sunday against the Chicago Bears will likely challenge Nelson, Pinion and kicker Phil Dawson as much as anyone. Dawson has been tracking the weather forecasts for more than a week to get mentally prepared for what he might face.

“Soldier Field is notorious for being a tough place to kick because of the wind and the field itself,” Dawson said this week on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “The footing is pretty poor. So when you add snow and moisture to the equation, it’s going to be one of those days.

“You need to have conversations with your coaches and let them know – be honest with them – about the difficulty. But you have to do that without it affecting your confidence to go out and get the job done.”

Said Nelson, “It takes more focus in bad weather. The snaps have to be a little more perfect. Bradley has to focus more on catching the ball, and Phil has to concentrate on the approach and be more cautious.”

Mark Helfrich provides insight into Chip Kelly's line of thinking

Mark Helfrich provides insight into Chip Kelly's line of thinking

Mark Helfrich had a strong indication he would be fired as Oregon’s head coach. And he said he told Chip Kelly recently he would have no hard feelings if Kelly left the 49ers to return to coach the Ducks.

Kelly this week said he is not interested in abandoning his job with the 49ers to coach in the college ranks. Helfrich suggested during a radio interview on Friday that Kelly told him the same thing privately.

When it was suggested that Kelly hated to recruit, Helfrich did not disagree.

"That's a fact," Helfrich said in an interview on ESPN Radio's Russillo and Kanell. "I don't know hated recruiting. . . a dislike. A strong dislike. But I think Chip has that challenge in his mind right now to make it right in the NFL.

"I had some of those conversations with him a couple weeks ago when it looked like this was going south. That was a very awkward converation, but (I) just wanted to let him know that to take our personal relationship out of it in every way, shape or form if he wanted to consider this.

"But, me, reading between the lines, I think he wants to make it right in the NFL. I think he wants to win at that level. He's had a rough go of it this year, but he'll get it right."

Kelly compiled a 46-7 record in four seasons in Eugene, Ore. He left after the 2012 season to accept the head-coaching job with the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly was fired late last season and took the 49ers job two weeks later.

In Kelly’s first season with the 49ers, the club is 1-10. The 49ers are on a franchise-long 10-game losing streak entering Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears.

Helfrich was 37-16 in his four seasons at Oregon after his promotion from offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Kelly said he spoke with Helfrich the morning after he was fired.

“I just felt bad for Mark. I love him like a brother,” Kelly said. “He’s a tremendous person. He’s a hell of a football coach, but he’s an even better person. Just felt for him and the rest of the guys on that staff. It’s an unfortunate thing that goes on in this profession. We all know about it when we sign up, but when it happens you’re still taken aback by it.”

Kelly said he hoped his denial of any interest in the Oregon job would end all speculation about his future. When asked if intends to remain with the 49ers, Kelly said on Wednesday, “Yep. So we're all done with that, I hope."