Donte Whitner (No. 31).
What are the first players that come to mind when someone mentions the San Francisco 49ers’ defense?
The suspects usually include the likes of Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith.
Even when it comes to the secondary, Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers pop up most consistently.
The man that contributes in such a significant way to the 49ers’ No. 1-ranked run defense easily qualifies as the unsung hero of this unit.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga occupies interior offensive linemen and the outside members of the front seven seal the edge against the run for the All-Pro middle linebackers to make tackles.
Whitner, though, represents the important second line of defense. He comes in behind those ‘backers and hauls down opposing rushers.
No single play better represents his essential role than his bone-crushing hit on Saints running back Pierre Thomas in last year’s divisional round playoff game. It literally knocked Thomas out of the game, forcing a fumble in the red zone on New Orleans’ opening drive. One could say it fundamentally altered the outcome in favor of the 49ers.
With that said, Whitner’s responsibilities do not always capture the attention of outside observers. While central to the success of this defense, his duties just aren’t all that glamorous.
Thankfully there are professional analysts out there who do bring attention and give due credit to defensive backs like Mr. Whitner.
In comparison, these NFL pundits rate Dashon Goldson much lower (more so with PFF than Miller). You might ask, how could the 49ers’ six-interception man and Pro Bowl free safety possibly earn a lower grade?
I would answer that hypothetical question with one of my own: What’s the most exciting play on defense? The answer to that question is most certainly the interception.
Goldson tallied six of those in the regular season. That earned him the No. 2 spot on the NFL’s leaderboard during the regular season (tied with teammate Carlos Rogers, among others). He added another in the playoffs.
So while these are often game-changing plays, it doesn’t reflect the excessive gambles Goldson takes in coverage. What does reflect his high-risk, high-reward nature are the four touchdowns and 94.1 rating of opposing quarterbacks throwing in his direction.
I only highlight Goldson’s strengths and weaknesses for comparison’s sake—it is not to put him on blast. Rather, it shows how the glory goes to ball hawks, while more technically sound and better overall players like Whitner often get left by the wayside.
Who do you believe is the unsung hero of the 49ers' D?
In another light, Whitner has also emerged as the vocal leader thus far in the offseason. He recently addressed his concussion-inducing, but legal hit on Thomas in a respectful manner to Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area:
I'm not happy that he was injured on the play, but I am happy I was able to deliver a big blow and get the football for our team…You let Drew Brees and the prolific offense…go down and score on the first drive, you don't know how the game would've turned out.
Whitner made his positive intentions known right off the bat. He showed concern for Thomas first, and then acknowledged how pivotal his play was during the game.
When asked about the bounties ordered by the Saint’s former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, he didn’t call anyone out or incite more potential violence. He merely said the coordinator’s actions were unnecessary, via Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area:
"So for a defensive coordinator to come up and talk about injuring players…you don't have to say that when you have the right type of guys in the room.”
Whitner went on to note his responsibility for clean, physical play instilled by the coaching staff. He indicated that players do not need to be motivated by monetary rewards, an assertion that could very well apply to members of the Saints.
Saints linebacker Scott Shanle, however, predictably took offense to Whitner’s comments.
“Guy needs to shut his mouth and mind his own business” (per Twitlonger via CSN Bay Area).
While Shanle spouted off on the subject in an unnecessarily aggressive fashion, Whitner took the high road and merely answered a reporter’s question in a thoughtful, classy manner. It is a reflection of the type of character exuded by Whitner and the 49ers organization.
So when it comes to play both on and off the field, Whitner comes out on top.
I can only wonder now if Whitner will remain on the periphery of the outside world’s focus when the 2012 season begins.
One thing for certain is that No. 31 won’t mind one way or the other.
Add me on Twitter @jlevitt16