The San Francisco 49ers defense has been one of the most dominant units in the NFL this year, and there’s a lot of credit to be spread around.
Inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis have been tackling machines this season, each tallying at least 120 tackles. Outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith combined for 26 sacks and comprised the majority of the team’s pass rush throughout the year.
While San Francisco’s front-three defenders don’t get much statistical credit, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith were part of the reason San Francisco’s linebacking corps was so productive this season. They did the dirty work in the trenches, tying up blockers and creating havoc for opposing offensive lines.
At the back end of the defense, San Francisco has a quality mix of veteran leadership and young playmakers, led by one of the most talented safety duos in the NFL. Both Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner have set the tone for a pass defense that ranked No. 4 in the league during the regular season.
Football is a team sport, and while it’s important for each man to play his best game, there are a few players will have to step up on the big stage this weekend. We’ll take a look at a few 49ers defenders who must play well to ensure a victory on February 3.
Aldon Smith got credit for more than half of the team’s sacks this year, but he also had a lot of help from Justin Smith. The two both line up on the right side of the defense and take advantage of a scheme that calls for a lot of stunts and twists employed to confuse offensive linemen and open up wide gaps for San Francisco’s linebackers.
Brooks will be the X-factor for the 49ers pass rush against Joe Flacco and the Ravens, though. While Smith was barreling his way to 19.5 sacks in the regular season, Brooks was doing more of the dirty work on the right side of the line. He didn’t put up huge numbers, but he hasn’t necessarily had to. Sacks are flashy, but getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks is ultimately the most important factor for pass-rushers.
Baltimore will no doubt be paying extra attention to the “Smith brothers,” giving Brooks a prime opportunity to come up big on the other side of the defense. Michael Oher, who slid over to the right side of the line when Bryant McKinnie took over at left tackle, is a good pass blocker, but he’ll have his hands full with McDonald and Sopoaga.
Rogers looks to be on the downside of his career, and his decline was apparent during the regular season. Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown may be better suited for defending Baltimore’s speedier receivers, but Rogers will play a crucial role in defending the Ravens slot receivers and tight ends.
Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta both had big performances against New England in the AFC Championship game, due in large part to the Patriots’ lack of depth at cornerback. Aqib Talib left the game early and New England didn’t have an answer for Baltimore’s big receivers.
Rogers is one of the most physical corners in the league, and he’ll have to play a physical brand of football against Boldin and Pitta. Flacco looks to them often, especially against 3-4 fronts that run a lot of fire zone blitzes that leave underneath routes vacated. If San Francisco gets pressure on Flacco, he’ll look to Pitta and Boldin as relief valves, and Rogers must be ready to limit the damage.
Smith is one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the league, but he’s earned quite a bit of praise this season. When Justin Smith was sidelined late in the season, Aldon Smith’s production fell off, highlighting just how important he is in San Francisco’s pass rush.
The 3-4 is predicated on tying up blockers and controlling gaps at the line of scrimmage. It’s not glamorous work, but it doesn’t go unnoticed.
For San Francisco’s pass rush to be disruptive against the Ravens, Smith will have to control the left side of Baltimore’s line. Most of the 49ers' sack production this season came from Aldon Smith, and that production starts up front.