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San Francisco 49ers: Previewing and Ranking the Defensive Units

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 14: Ahmad Brooks #55 (L) and Patrick Willis #52 (R) of the San Francisco 49ers takes the field for the start of the NFC Divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park on January 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Jon SiddowayCorrespondent IJune 10, 2012

With the offense already taken care of, let's turn our attention to the San Francisco 49ers defense. 

Here is a preview and ranking—based on a not-so-secret recipe combining past performances and future projections—of each defensive unit.  

 

Linebackers

Who: Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson, Larry Grant, Tavares Gooden and Cam Johnson

Why: Two All-Pro tackling machines in the middle and two outstanding athletes on the outside make this the most fearsome linebacking unit in the entire NFL. They do it all: stop the run, pressure the quarterback and effectively drop back in coverage. 

Haralson, Grant, and Gooden—a special teams ace—are reliable backups in case of injury, and Johnson, though a rookie, has plenty of upside. 

 

Defensive Line

Who: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, Demarcus Dobbs, Ricky Jean Francois and Will Tukuafu

Why: If not for the linebackers, the d-line would easily top the list.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 14:  Justin Smith #94 of the San Francisco 49ers hovers over Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints after Brees was sacked in the third quarter of the NFC Divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park on January 14, 2012 in San
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Smith, team captain and defensive end, is equally dominant—58 tackles, 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2011—as he is underrated. And on the other side, McDonald has quietly developed into a steady contributor. 

Sopoaga, though, is "the big engine that could" for the defense. He plugs up the middle and gobbles up multiple blockers, freeing teammates to fly in and make plays.

Depth is a minor issue—only Ricky Jean has recorded a start—but each player is prepared to step in if called upon. 

 

Cornerbacks

Who: Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox, Cory Nelms and Curtis Holcomb

Why: A lot of bodies for a team that will face a lot of throws—the Packers, Giants, Patriots and Saints all appear on the regular season schedule.

No worries, these guys are up to the task. 

Once considered a weak link, the cornerback unit is anything but weak these days. Rogers is fresh off a six-pick season, Brown is a budding star, Culliver a promising youngster and the rest are raw yet talented.

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 24:  Tarell Brown #25 of the San Francisco 49ers intercepts a pass intended for  Torrey Smith #82 of the Baltimore Ravens during the first half at M&T Bank Stadium on November 24, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. Brown was called for
Rob Carr/Getty Images

As the 49ers stuff the run—which they do at a league-best rate—and force opponents to become one-dimensional, expect each of these corners to see their fair share of playing time.  

 

Safeties

Who: Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson, Trenton Robinson and C.J. Spillman

Why: The starters are solid, no doubt about it. Goldson is a big-hitter with great, albeit risky, ball skills and Whitner is the quarterback of the defense. But what happens if one or the other is unable to go? Who steps in?

As Goldson's contract situation continues to stall, rookie Robinson and special teams standout Spillman continue to receive first team reps. Robinson is the likely replacement at free safety if Goldson leaves.  

 

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