Midseason report: Defense


Midseason report: Defense

First-half storyline: The 49ers have only four defensive players back at the same starting position from a year ago. And each of the changes has been for the better. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and his staff are utilizing the pieces perfectly to form what has been the strength of the team. Three-quarters of the secondary is comprised of new starters. Cornerback Carlos Rogers has been a significant upgrade in coverage over Nate Clements, whom the 49ers released after the lockout. Tarell Brown replaced Shawntae Spencer, who remains on the roster but has been demoted to the team's fifth cornerback. And Donte Whitner has played well in the safety position occupied last season by Reggie Smith and Taylor Mays, given away in a trade to Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the 49ers might have the best front seven in the NFL. General manager Trent Baalke made all the right moves along the way. The 49ers replaced Takeo Spikes with speedy youngster NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker. And after showing little interest in retaining nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, the 49ers have improved with Isaac Sopoaga at the nose and Ray McDonald at left defensive end

MVP: Middle linebacker Patrick Willis. Again, Willis is the team's best defensive player. And as the 49ers open the second half of the season with a 7-1 record, Willis must be considered on the short list of players in serious contention for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Willis and Bowman have formed a sideline-to-sideline tackling duo unmatched in the NFL. Willis was outstanding in pass coverage, too. He also forced three fumbles and recovered two in the first eight games.Biggest surprise: Brown. He started five games in his first four seasons, and was never able to hold onto a starting job. This season, he has been solid while starting the first eight games at right cornerback. Brown registered seven passes broken up.Biggest disappointment: The 49ers experienced some injuries in the secondary that forced a bunch of different combinations early in the season. Spencer was penciled in as a starter, but he fell so far behind due to hamstring and toe injuries that, now, he does not even play. Dashon Goldson, Whitner and Tramaine Brock missed games due to injuries. Rookie Chris Culliver took advantage of the injuries to Spencer and Brock to win the job as the No. 3 corner.Best play: Justin Smith, a 285-pound defensive end who played every defensive snap in the game, preserved the 49ers' Week 4 come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Eagles with a play Fangio called, "The defensive equivalent of 'The Catch.'" Smith began the play as a pass-rusher and then hustled after speedster Jeremy Maclin. With two minutes remaining, all the Eagles needed was a field goal to take the lead. Smith caught up to Maclin and stripped him of the football at the 49ers' 31-yard line. The 49ers recovered, and they held on for a 24-23 victory, which served as a springboard for a 7-1 start and five-game lead in the NFC West.Worst play: The 49ers saw their 10-point fourth-quarter lead over the Dallas Cowboys evaporate and the teams went to overtime in Week 2 at Candlestick Park. Rogers and Whitner bit hard on Tony Romo's run fake, allowing seldom-used receiver Jesse Holley to get behind the secondary. The 77-yard pass set up the Cowboys' winning field goal, and dealt the 49ers their only loss through eight games.Key to the second half: The 49ers' front seven played a lot of snaps in the first half of the season, so they have to keep those guys from wearing down. The only non-starter who sees a lot of key snaps is rookie Aldon Smith, who leads the 49ers with 6.5 sacks. Smith must continue to generate good pressure on the quarterback in nickel situations to take heat off the 49ers' secondary.

49ers, McDonald agree to five-year extension

49ers, McDonald agree to five-year extension

The 49ers signed tight end Vance McDonald to a five-year contract extension through the 2021 season, the team announced late Friday.

The deal is worth $35 million, including $16 million in guaranteed money, ESPN reported. The actual contract terms and amount of fully guaranteed money is expected to be less than the reported figures.

McDonald ranks third on the 49ers with 24 catches for 391 yards and four touchdowns. He has touchdown receptions this season of 75 and 65 yards.

"Vance has shown consistent growth throughout his four-year career and his production this season is the result of his dedication and hard work,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said in a statement. “We believe he has only scratched the surface of what he will be able to accomplish in his career. Vance is a tremendous ambassador for the 49ers, and his passion for helping others provides a wonderful example for this organization. We look forward to his continued contributions to this organization, both on and off the field.”

McDonald is in the final season of his original four-year, $3.99 million contract he signed as a second-round draft pick in 2013.

In McDonald’s three previous seasons, he caught just 40 passes for 475 yards and three touchdowns.

McDonald spoke last week about the greater chances he's gotten to prove himself since the 49ers traded Vernon Davis last season.

“I just always look back at the opportunity when Vernon went to (Denver),” McDonald said. “Just being able to have the trust and the opportunity to start games and play every down.”

Said 49ers coach Chip Kelly, "He’s one of our weapons on the offensive side of the ball and he runs better than most tight ends in this league. So really depends on week to week what people have available at the safety spot to kind of match up with him. But he’s certainly someone that I think people defensively have to game plan for.”



Injury report: Staley's streak of 92 consecutive starts in serious jeopardy

Injury report: Staley's streak of 92 consecutive starts in serious jeopardy

Five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley is listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game due to a hamstring injury, the 49ers announced on Friday.

Staley has the third-longest active streak among offensive tackles with 92 consecutive starts. Only Cleveland's Joe Thomas (156) and Oakland's Donald Penn (153) rank ahead of him on the list. Staley has not missed a game since the beginning of the 2011 season.

Coach Chip Kelly said Friday morning on his weekly show on KNBR that the 49ers have two more days of training “and then we’ll see what Joe’s status is going into the game on Sunday.”

Kelly added, “That’s kind of what we normally do with everybody. The best thing to say with Joe is he’s day-to-day. We’re hopeful, but we have two more days out on the field.”

With Staley not expected to play, the 49ers will likely shift left guard Zane Beadles to left tackle. Andrew Tiller, who started the first five games of the season at right guard, would likely start at left guard.

The 49ers expect outside linebacker Aaron Lynch to return to action on Sunday after missing five games with a high-ankle sprain, Kelly said on KNBR. Lynch is listed as questionable, along with defensive tackle Quinton Dial, who has a left elbow injury

The Jets will be without at least one starter. Right tackle Breno Giacomini was ruled out due to injuries. Brent Qvale, a third-year player from Nebraska, is scheduled to make his fifth NFL start.

Defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson is listed as questionable with an ankle injury.

T Joe Staley (hamstring)
DT Quinton Dial (elbow)
LB Aaron Lynch (ankle)

RB Khiry Robinson (lower leg)
DT Steve McLendon (hamstring)
T Breno Giacomini (back, calf, shoulder)
LB Lorenzo Mauldin (ankle)
S Antonio Allen (concussion)
WR Jalin Marshall (concussion)
DE Muhammad Wilkerson (ankle)