San Francisco 49ers: 5 Unsung Heroes on Defense

Dan MoriCorrespondent IDecember 5, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: 5 Unsung Heroes on Defense

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    The San Francisco 49ers have the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL, allowing only 13.4 points per game.  Head coach Jim Harbaugh has the 49ers in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

    A major reason for the 49ers' success is the strength of the defense, led by coordinator Vic Fangio.  The 49ers have not allowed a rushing touchdown all season, and have gone 34 consecutive games without allowing an opposing running back 100 yards rushing.

    This unit has several stars who are becoming well known for their outstanding play.  These include Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis and Justin Smith.  In addition, defensive back Carlos Rogers and linebacker NaVorro Bowman have been getting a lot of positive press. 

    Rookie Aldon Smith, the 49ers' first round draft pick, has also garnered a lot of attention.  Smith leads the 49ers with 9.5 sacks for the 2011 season.

    No defensive unit can be successful without the entire group working together.  It's more than just the stars, but the role players who also must play solid football.

    Let's take a look at some of these unsung heroes on the 49ers' defense.

Honorable Mention: Andy Lee

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    A punter is not a member of the defensive unit, but can definitely contribute to the success of the defense. Andy Lee is one such punter who benefits a defense.

    Lee has a tremendous average of 50.4 yards per punt and 43.3 net yards per punt. He has also pinned opponents back inside the 20-yard line on 19 of his 58 punts. 

    Lee's outstanding punting has provided field position advantages for the 49ers and made the job much easier for the defense.  For this, he deserves an honorable mention.

5) Larry Grant

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    Larry Grant rarely saw the field other than special teams.  Then, against the St. Louis Rams, he was called upon to replace the injured Patrick Willis.

    Grant plays behind both Willis and NaVorro Bowman, both of whom are linebackers who play every down.  I was extremely pleased to see how effective Grant was when Willis left the game.

    Grant had four tackles, including one sack. He was also a disruptive force in the backfield of the Rams on several plays.  Hopefully, Willis will not miss any significant time with his hamstring injury, but if he does, Grant should be able to adequately hold down the fort.

4) Chris Culliver

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    The San Francisco 49ers selected Chris Culliver in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft.  He began his collegiate career as a safety, then moved to the cornerback spot in his junior season. 

    Culliver was not expected to play much this year on the defensive side of the ball.  The 49ers envisioned him contributing on special teams and learning the nuances of the corner position in the NFL.

    However, due to an injuries to Shawntae Spencer and Tramaine Brock, the 49ers were forced to play Culliver as the nickel back.  He has received far more playing time than expected and has generally done a good job.

    Culliver has been beaten deep on occasion and also sometimes lays off his man too far, allowing the underneath completion.  However, in general, Culliver has been decent and serviceable as the nickel back.

    He is a solid tackler and has likely made eight-year veteran Shawntae Spencer expendable.  I doubt that the more expensive Spencer will be on the 49ers' roster in 2012.

    Culliver has 26 tackles and one interception.  At age 23, Culliver should continue to grow and improve. 

3) Donte Whitner

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    The San Francisco 49ers acquired Donte Whitner as a free agent, prior to the 2011 season.  He has provided a very steadying influence for the 49ers' secondary.

    Whitner. who is in his sixth year in the NFL, has eased the pressure on safety Dashon Goldson.  He generally makes the defensive calls for the secondary, and that frees Goldson up to just play football.

    Whitner has had coverage problems on occasion, but in general, he has done a good job.  He is also an excellent tackler and is solid against the run.

    Whitner has 49 tackles and two interceptions.  He is also a leader in the secondary for the 49ers.

2) Isaac Sopoaga

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    The San Francisco 49ers had a decision to make at the nose tackle position this summer. The 49ers had to either sign Aubrayo Franklin to a high priced contract or let him move on. 

    The 49ers elected to let Franklin go and decided on Isaac Sopoaga as their starting nose tackle.  Sopoaga had played the defensive end position, prior to moving inside this year.  As an end, he was strong against the run, but was not an effective pass rusher.

    When the 49ers moved Sopoaga to the nose, he responded with some fine play.  Although he is still not a strong pass rusher, he has been good against the run.  He also occupies blockers, which enables the 49ers' outstanding linebackers to make plays.

1) Ray McDonald

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    Ray McDonald is the biggest unsung hero of the 49ers' defense.  He had started only nine games in his prior four NFL seasons.  McDonald has anchored the all-important defensive end position, opposite Pro-Bowl lineman Justin Smith.

    The biggest thing I noticed was when McDonald was out with an injury, there was a major drop-off in the performance of the 49ers' defensive line.

    On the season, McDonald has 25 tackles and a career-high four sacks.  McDonald has quietly and effectively done his job all season.

The 49ers' Defense Is Poised to Take Care of Business in the Playoffs

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    The San Francisco 49ers have an excellent defense.   This unit should keep them in the game at all times.

    Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has done a great job preparing the 49ers' defense, against their opponents.  In addition, Fangio and the 49ers' defensive staff are developing the young players and they are showing improvement. 

    This is a defensive unit that continues to jell and has the ability to lead the 49ers on a deep run in the playoffs.