Defensive line: This outstanding unit has been on the rise all season, but it took another leap into the stratosphere during Sunday's 25-19 upset of the Detroit Lions, when San Francisco's D-line dominated its Detroit counterparts and pretty much took over the game as it progressed. Tackles Ray McDonald and Justin Smith were dominant and wore down the Lions' front as the game went on, and on this day they got significant help from rookie Aldon Smith, who lined up most of the afternoon as a defensive end as San Francisco went with its nickel front against the Lions' pass-happy offense. Isaac Sopoaga returned to the starting lineup at nose tackle after missing the Oct. 9 Tampa Bay game due to an infection, and that's enough reason right there to raise the stock of this unit. But Sopoaga didn't see much playing time because of the different defensive packages used by the Niners, allowing Aldon Smith to step in with a larger role. Smith answered with his second consecutive two-sack game, forcing a fumble on one of the sacks and tackling Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford in the end zone for a safety on the other. Justin Smith was simply phenomenal, producing seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and three QB hits, while McDonald also pushed back the Detroit line and knocked down two passes while finishing with half a sack. Smith and McDonald have combined for 7.5 sacks this season and are giving the Niners a lethal set of bookends on the front of their 3-4 defensive set.
OLB Aldon Smith: The first-round draft pick was part of the action cited above, but he deserves mention in his own right for his steady progression into an impact force on the San Francisco defense. Smith made his biggest impact yet with his standout performance against the Lions, which not only put points on the scoreboard for the 49ers with his first career safety but also contributed greatly to the constant harassment of Stafford that had the young quarterback flummoxed and looking for cover by the finish. Smith made his presence felt throughout the day with four tackles, a forced fumble, a pass defensed, a quarterback hit and a tackle for a loss to go along with his two sacks. Smith also had two sacks in San Francisco's 48-3 victory over Tampa Bay on Oct. 9, after which he was named NFL Rookie of the Week. Smith has been nominated for the same award this week. He leads the 49ers with 5.5 sacks after six games and is on a pace to record 14.5 for the season. Smith has climbed to fifth among the NFL's sack leaders and leads all rookies in that category.
RB Frank Gore: The seventh-year veteran's stock has been on the rise for weeks, but now it's soaring after his star performance against the Lions, when Gore broke loose for runs of 47 and 55 yards on his way to a season-high 141 yards on just 15 carries. It was Gore's third consecutive game of 125 yards rushing or more and increased his three-week run to 393 yards on 50 carries, a whopping average of 7.9 yards per carry. Gore was averaging just 2.5 yards per carry after San Francisco's first three games, when he was buried down the list of the league's leading rushers with 148 total yards. Now, after six games, Gore has vaulted to fifth among the NFL's leading rushers with 541 yards on the ground, and his average per carry has doubled to 5.0. Gore has scored at least one touchdown in three consecutive games, and as the 49ers enter their bye week, he stands just 28 yards behind Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy in the battle to be the NFC's leading rusher.
WR Michael Crabtree: With Josh Morgan out for the season, Crabtree is going to start seeing a lot more passes coming his way. That recent development came at him in a rush last week as Crabtree was targeted 15 times during the victory in Detroit, tying his career high with nine receptions. Crabtree continues to make steady progress with every element of his game and figures to continue to be a regular target on the edge for quarterback Alex Smith even after Braylon Edwards returns to the lineup. After recording just one reception through the first two weeks of the season, Crabtree has caught 19 passes since to become San Francisco's leading receiver among wideouts with 20 receptions for 209 yards. Crabtree also is showing the ability to make the tough catch, as none of his receptions were of the routine variety against the Lions. Crabtree also had what would have been a spectacular, dancing reception along the sidelines waved off because officials ruled he didn't get both of his feet inbounds near the end zone.
No unit falling: For the first time this season, the 49ers do not have a particular position group whose stock is falling this week as the team enters its bye. That indicates just how good the 49ers really were as a team during their upset victory against the Lions, with every unit holding its own – or better – and producing a winning brand of play.
CB Shawntae Spencer: The eighth-year veteran may or may not be still hampered by a lingering toe injury – the 49ers don't discuss injuries, so nobody really knows – but either way, he is steadily losing his status among San Francisco's top cornerbacks. When training camp began back in July, Spencer held the label of San Francisco's No. 1 cornerback after starting each of the team's 36 games the previous two seasons. But injuries kept him out most of the summer, and Tarell Brown was in Spencer's customary starting spot at right cornerback when the season began. Spencer played sparingly in September but was a factor as the team's No. 3 cornerback and had four tackles in San Francisco's Oct. 2 upset in Philadelphia. But he did not play the next week because of his sore toe, and even though Spencer was deemed healthy enough to play and was involved on special teams last week against the Lions, he only saw a few snaps of action on defense as the team went with rookie Chris Culliver as its No. 3 cornerback for the second consecutive week. Like he did the week before against Tampa Bay, Culliver played well against the Lions – even better than he did against the Buccaneers – and contributed a key role in containing Detroit's explosive passing game while playing most of the team's defensive snaps. It appears Spencer has fallen to fourth in the team's pecking order at cornerback, with Tramaine Brock coming up fast behind him.