Over the past few years, the San Francisco 49ers have silently accumulated a number of players with immense talent. The Niners are now finding out that they have one of the NFL's most stacked rosters occupied by some of the league's elite talent at their respective positions.
In addition to that, this is a team really predicated on a collective effort of numerous "mighty men," so it's understandable that when superlatives are handed out that a number of heavy-handed contributors stay below the radar. Whether it is a player at an unglamorous role or a position coach rather than a coordinator, many guys have been shorthanded when it comes to credit.
In the following piece, we will identify and assess eight players and coaches on the 49ers that are often overshadowed but do great work.
Like Chilo Rachal, Moran Norris had bothered many 49er faithfuls with his inconsistent play and knowing there was someone better out there to fill that spot. Around the same time, Jim Harbaugh figured out Adam Snyder was a better suited right guard than Rachal (Week 4 at PHI), and they discovered Bruce Miller was already a better player than Norris.
Miller is not only a first-time fullback, but a first-time offensive player. The former Central Florida star defenseman converted to the fullback position in a shortened offseason, and by Week 4, he was ready to start. And not only was Miller starting, but he was dominating.
If Miller takes another leap forward in his game, he could start a new trend of highly athletic, bruising full backs with the motors of defensive linemen. He makes contact on every play, usually hitting that first block at the line of scrimmage to spring the back free. He is also smart enough to grasp the 49ers offense and versatile enough to not be limited in it.
Miller is a threat out of the backfield with dependable hands and his will after the catch. Miller gives the 49ers offense quite a kick with all he brings to the table. He is a consistent player that is only going to get better; in year one, he was the starting full back to one of the league's top run offenses.
Tarell Brown is a starting cornerback for the 49ers, but he's often not the one that's talked about by the media. The free agent acquisition Carlos Rogers had a breakout year in San Francisco, recording a career-high six interceptions in 2011.
But if you include the playoffs, Brown had five interceptions and 18 pass deflections for the Niners. The first-time starter had a very solid debut year and should look to improve in 2012. San Francisco does a good deal of rotating corners on receivers, and Brown's been reliable and versatile enough to do so. He's manned up on some of the league's better receivers and hasn't backed down from the challenge.
We forget that Brown was a starter in the league's No. 1 defense, and he contributed to that plus-28 turnover ratio. Brown is one of the most commonly unheralded players on the 49ers team, even though he is a very well-rounded football player.
Isaac Sopoaga does not play a glamorous position as a 3-4 nose tackle in the 49ers scheme. He is a player that is often absorbing blocks or attempting to get pressure in three or four man rushes. His job is difficult, but he does it well. Because of the nature of the position, we don't get to hear Sopoaga's name much.
Sopoaga transitioned from the end position to nose in 2011; it was a part of incorporating Ray McDonald and letting Aubrayo Franklin walk. It's easy to forget that Sopoaga changed positions, so 2012 will be his second year as the 49ers' starting nose tackle. And like most of the team, I believe Sopoaga will progress in technique, knowledge and experience.
He is also a lot more athletic of a player than folks give him credit for. Sopoaga has selflessly come in on offense to run block and even catch passes from Alex Smith. He has the versatility of a linebacker, but he's playing the nose tackle position. If you watch the film on Sopoaga, it's visible that his footwork greatly assists in his technique.
When a 3-4 defense works as well as this one does, the nose tackle position and outside linebacker positions are usually positions to consider as reasons for the success. Sopoaga is at the nucleus creating disruption and allowing those around him to operate at a high level.
Ed Donatell is one of the many great coaches on the 49ers staff, with a tremendous wealth of knowledge and proven experience. Donatell came to San Francisco from the Denver Broncos, where he worked with players like Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins. Before that, Donatell was even a defensive coordinator for both the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers.
With 21 years experience in the NFL, Donatell has worked with such players as Ronnie Lott, Steve Atwater, LeRoy Butler, Darren Sharper, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins. Donatell knows what the finished product is supposed to look like.
Working with assistant secondary coach Greg Jackson, Donatell helped guide the 49ers defensive backfield, in 2011, to 22 interceptions, which ranked second among all NFL secondaries. S Dashon Goldson and CB Carlos Rogers each recorded a career-high six interceptions and both were selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time. Rogers was named a starter in Hawaii, while also being selected Second-Team All-Pro. The defense finished the season ranked fourth in the NFL in percentage of attempts intercepted (3.9).
In a shortened offseason, Donatell took one of the 49ers' biggest weaknesses and turned it into a team strength. In almost no time at all, he turned one of the league's worst secondaries and did a complete 180 with it. He has motivated the players, tweaked their technique and extracted high-level performance out of each of them.
The 49ers have had trouble finding a dependable safety and have suffered through a series of very mediocre ones since Ronnie Lott and Tim McDonald.
Donte Whitner came to the 49ers last offseason via free agency, and he's here to stay. Whitner played very good football in 2011, being a dominating presence, punishing hitter and a run stuffer.
For as physically imposing as he is for a safety, he has ball skills, and his coverage ability is up to par. The 49ers shuffled through safeties at that position early in the year before settling on Whitner; both Madieu Williams and Reggie Smith started games.
Between Whitner and Dashon Goldson, the 49ers might have the best pair of safeties in the league. They hit hard, they swarm and they are ball hawks. These are two guys that can set the tone and strike fear into wide receivers that want to come into their area.
Whitner also helped fix a position that's been yearning to be tended to for some time now. He came to the 49ers ready to work, and he's rightfully earned his place on the team. It's very possible that Whitner ends his career in San Francisco and wins a ring before he retires.
Ahmad Brooks is the star of any other 3-4 defense in the NFL. Unfortunately, he is on the 49ers, where he's competing with Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Justin Smith and now Aldon Smith for highlights. But Brooks more than holds his own on the league's No. 1 run defense.
While Aldon Smith is more of an outside linebacker that excels at pass-rushing, Brooks excels at run stopping. Brooks is in on a lot of tackles and uses his broad frame to keep runners inside. He can bust through offensive lines and make the big tackles for loss.
However, he isn't one-dimensional; he is a good pass rusher and can get to the quarterback. Brooks had seven sacks to go with his 50 tackles in 2011; he even had a sack in the playoffs against Drew Brees and the Saints. Brooks is a big-time player for San Francisco, but doesn't get nearly the press he deserves.
Tom Rathman is in his second coaching stint with the San Francisco 49ers after being with the team from 1997 to 2002. After coaching in Detroit and Oakland, Rathman returned to San Francisco as the running backs coach, where he's once again engineered a top-10 rushing unit.
49ers.com had this update about Rathman:
Under Rathman’s tutelage, RB Frank Gore has solidified his reputation as one of the premier backs in the league. In 2011, Gore was selected to his third career Pro Bowl as he became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, surpassing Hall of Famer Joe “The Jet” Perry. Gore also became the first player in franchise history to rush for over 100 yards in five consecutive games. Rathman also played a key role in developing starting FB Bruce Miller as he made the transition to the offensive side of the ball after starring at defensive end in college. The offense finished the season with the league’s eighth-best run game.
Working with a variety of different players with unique styles, Rathman has been able to adapt and guide most of them to success. The challenge presented to him by Jim Harbaugh in the form of Bruce Miller, and the end result, was remarkable. It speaks volumes to his mental capacity as a coach.
When the 49ers had no passing game to lean on, it was Rathman who made sure there was a ground attack. He was a great player for the 49ers who's become a great coach for them.
This is the man behind the league's most ferocious, relentless, powerful, dominating and cerebral front sevens. The 49ers are truly lucky to have Jim Tomsula in control of their defensive front, because he's really done outstanding things with the group. Tomsula may have had the greatest statistical impact of any coach of the 49ers staff.
Since Tomsula’s arrival, the 49ers run defense and pass rush have steadily improved. During his four seasons with the team, the defensive line has allowed a mere 3.7 yards per carry, to rank 4th in the NFL during that span. In terms of yards per carry allowed, San Francisco’s defense ranked 5th (3.8) in 2007, 8th (3.8) in 2008, 3rd (3.6) in 2009 and 2nd (3.5) in 2010, a notable improvement from ranking 16th (4.1) in 2006 prior to Tomsula’s arrival.
His front seven was record-setting against the run in 2011, not allowing a 100-yard rusher or rushing touchdown until Week 16 against Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks. A record that had stood since before the NFL, in 1920, where the Decatur Staley's held strong for 13 games.
But Tomsula does more than stop the run:
Also charged with the development of the team’s pass rush, Tomsula has helped the 49ers increase their sack totals from 65 over his first two seasons to 80 the past two years. After ranking tied for 3rd in 2009 with 44 sacks, the 49ers posted 36 in 2010 for a two-year total that ranked 7th in the NFL over that span.
Yes, we praise Jim Harbaugh, but Tomsula deserves a couple pats on the back each day; the guy is a miracle worker. He is the best position coach of his respective group, and he's got a Hall of Fame-caliber unit to work with.
Follow me on Twitter: @DeSimone80