Last week, we took a look at the San Francisco 49ers offense. This week, we'll review the defense, which was largely the reason for optimism this season.
Of course, it starts up front, where the 49ers produced a capable run defense that ranked among the league's best.
The Niners ranked sixth in the NFL (and second in the NFC) in rushing yards allowed per game and did not allow a 100-yard rushing performance. They were stout up front, with defensive tackle Justin Smith having an exceptional season and Isaac Sopoaga showing continued improvement.
Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, the team's franchise player, missed the first four weeks of training camp and all of the team's offseason workouts in the hope of signing a long-term deal. Understandably, he got off to a slow start but finally recovered, finishing with 86 tackles and 5½ tackles for loss.
The best work was done by Smith, who won a spot in the Pro Bowl after totaling a team-best 8½ sacks and 13 tackles for loss. Smith quietly started every game and now has a streak of 155 consecutive starts, most among defensive linemen and sixth most among all players. If you take away the Dec. 16 contest at San Diego in which he was ejected for pushing a game official, it was arguably the best season among the team's defensive players. He ended the season with 17 solo tackles in the 49ers' final two games.
Sopoaga totaled six tackles for loss and shared time with Ray McDonald, who didn't have a sack but put effective pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Together, they were a reasonably good tandem. Rookie Ricky Jean Francois made good strides in his first season and got plenty of playing time while Franklin sat out.