San Francisco 49ers' Defensive Line: An Underrated Product of the 3-4 Defense

Matt MCorrespondent IMay 22, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 26:  Quarterback Seneca Wallace #15 of the Seattle Seahawks drops back to pass while being pursued by Justin Smith #94 of the San Francisco 49ers in the second quarter at Candlestick Park on October 26, 2008 in San Francisco, California. The Seahawks defeated the 49ers 34-13.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

When most casual NFL observers read the meager sack totals of the 49ers’ defense, they reach a common conclusion.

The 49ers need to improve the defensive line.

While certainly not reminiscent of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” of the 1970’s nor the Los Angeles Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” of the 1960’s, the 49ers’ defensive front is much more productive than given credit for. 

Yes, 49er “defensive ends” don’t mimic the production of the feared New York Giants’ pass rushers. 

And yes, 49er NT Aubrayo Franklin’s NFL career may be as forgettable as Michael Jordan’s venture into baseball.

Unlike the aforementioned stat factories of the past and present, the 49ers employ a base 3-4 defense. 

Although elite offensive threats, nobody compares Peyton Manning’s rushing totals to that of LaDainian Tomlinson’s. 

Even within comparable positions, statistical benchmarking can prove futile.

Graham Harrell was the most statistically prolific passer in college football last year, yet he went undrafted.  Meanwhile Matthew Stafford, the draft’s number one overall pick, broke more bones (behind Georgia’s porous offensive line) than NCAA passing records. 

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The two players don’t play comparable roles, nor comparable systems, making their stat comparison meaningless.  

Unlike the New York Giant sack artists, 3-4 defensive linemen are assigned the inglorious roles of space eater and body occupier. 

The role of a 3-4 defensive lineman is more similar to that of a Spartan soldier than a 4-3 defensive frontman. 

After all, with just three bodies in the front lines, 3-4 defensive linemen face a far outnumbered battle in the trenches. 

With five offensive lineman (and one tight end, depending on the offensive formation) available to block, 3-4 defensive linemen assume the role of operation human shield as they attempt to thwart the big bodies from impeding their linebackers’ free roam. 

Contrary to legend, when Patrick Willis racked up his 2007 record breaking tackle tally, he didn’t do it in the face of five large bodied men.  He was free to roam from his Mike backer position. 

In that 2007 season, the 49er frontline did their job, and a fine one at that. 

Although essential in helping occupy blockers, it is ultimately the role of the 3-4 outside linebackers (not defensive line) to provide the much needed pass rush. 

In order to better contrast the relative statistical performance of the 49er defensive line, I have compared their 2008 statistics to that of players on comparable 3-4 employed teams. 

Note: Although the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens utilized 3-4 defensive formations, they didn’t employ a base 3-4 defensive scheme.

San Francisco 49ers:

LDE: Isaac Sopoaga

Tackle: 41; Sack: 1; FF: 0

NT: Aubrayo Franklin

Tackle: 46; Sack: 1; FF: 2

RDE: Justin Smith

Tackle: 73; Sack: 7; FF: 1

New England Patriots:

LDE: Ty Warren

Tackle: 41; Sack: 2; FF: 1

NT: Vince Wilfork

Tackle: 66; Sack: 2; FF: 0

RDE: Richard Seymour

Tackle: 52; Sack: 8; FF: 0

San Diego Chargers:

LDE: Igor Olshansky

Tackle: 29; Sack: 2; FF: 0

NT: Jamal Williams

Tackle: 56; Sack: 1.5; FF: 0

RDE: Luis Castillo

Tackle: 39; Sack: 1.5; FF: 1

Dallas Cowboys:

LDE: Marcus Spears

Tackle: 35; Sack: 1; FF: 1

NT: Jay Ratliff

Tackle: 51; Sack: 7.5; FF: 0

RDE: Chris Canty

Tackle: 37; Sack: 3; FF: 0

New York Jets:

LDE: Shaun Ellis

Tackle: 60; Sack: 8; FF: 2

NT: Kris Jenkins:

Tackle: 50; Sack: 3.5; FF: 1

RDE: Kenyon Coleman

Tackle: 53; Sack: 0.5; FF: 0

Pittsburgh Steelers:

LDE: Aaron Smith

Tackle: 60; Sack: 5.5; FF: 0

NT: Casey Hampton

Tackle: 22; Sack: 1; FF: 0

RDE: Brett Keisel

Tackle: 41; Sack: 1; FF: 0

Cleveland Browns:

LDE: Corey Williams

Tackle: 50; Sack: 0.5; FF: 1

NT: Shaun Rogers

Tackle: 76; Sack: 4.5; FF: 0

RDE: Shaun Smith

Tackle: 36; Sack: 0; FF: 1

NFL Rankings (Sacks)

Defensive Ends:

1- Shaun Ellis (8)

2- Richard Seymour (8)

3- Justin Smith (7)

4- Aaron Smith (5.5)

5- Chris Canty (3)

NFL Average: 2.9

NFL Average Total (for both DE): 5.8

*49er RDE: Isaac Sopoaga (1 sack): tied for 9th best in NFL (out of 14)

*49er Total (for both DE): 8

Nose Tackle:

1- Jay Ratliff (7.5)

2- Shaun Rogers (4.5)

3- Kris Jenkins (3.5)

4- Vince Wilfork (2)

5- Jamal Williams (1.5)

6- Aubrayo Franklin (1)

7- Casey Hampton (1)

NFL Average: 3


As evidenced by the statistical breakdown, 49er defensive ends experienced an above average performance during the 2008 NFL season.  Their 8 total sacks from the 3-4 defensive end position, was significantly higher than the NFL average of 5.5

This included a phenomenal seven sack performance by Justin Smith, which was the third highest total in the league.  Although Pro Bowl players Shaun Ellis and Richard Seymour may have out-sacked Smith, the 49er right defensive end lead all NFL 3-4 defensive ends in tackles, with an impressive 73 stops. 

With the exception of the three Pro Bowl-caliber nose tackles in Jay Ratliff, Shaun Rogers, and Kris Jenkins, Aubrayo Franklin performed at a comparable level to well-respected defensive ends such as Jamal Williams and Casey Hampton.