Niners making their mark in Pro Bowl

For a team that lost as many games as it won this past season, the 49ers will be showcased rather well in the first Pro Bowl to be played on the mainland since 1979. Even with starting linebacker Patrick Willis a late scratch from the game, the NFC squad will feature four 49ers in Sunday's game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami – the team's largest representation since 2002.

Willis was a late injury scratch and won't start for the NFC for the first time since he came into the NFL as San Francisco's first-round draft pick in 2007. Willis had earned his third consecutive starting bid with another spectacular season in 2009, when he led the NFL in tackles for the second time with 173 and was one of four defenders in the league this past season to record at least four sacks and three interceptions.

The 49ers still will have two players in the NFC's starting lineup – tight end Vernon Davis and punter Andy Lee. San Francisco's total of five Pro Bowlers is the best for any NFC team this year that didn't have a winning record.

Running back Frank Gore and defensive end Justin Smith, who were originally named as Pro Bowl alternates back in December, were added to the NFC squad during January and also will be matching their talent with the NFL's best in Sunday's game, the first time in 30 years the Pro Bowl won't be played at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii, and also the first time in history the game will be played before the Super Bowl.

Davis will be starting in his first Pro Bowl visit after producing the finest season ever by a San Francisco tight end in 2009. The fourth-year pro led the 49ers this past season with 78 receptions, 965 receiving yards and 13 receiving touchdowns, setting a team record for receiving yards by a tight end and a NFL record for touchdown catches by a tight end.

Davis is the first 49ers tight end named to the Pro Bowl since Brent Jones played in the 1996 Pro Bowl and the first tight end to start for San Francisco since Jones in the 1994 game.

Gore, the NFC's starting running back in the 2007 Pro Bowl, will share time in the backfield with Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Carolina's DeAngelo Williams after becoming the first running back in San Francisco history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in four consecutive seasons.

Gore led the 49ers and placed fifth in the NFC with 1,120 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing. He also had 52 receptions for 406 yards and set new career highs in rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns (13).

Lee will be punting for the NFC for the second time in three years after producing another standout season that saw him lead the conference with a 47.6-yard average.

Lee thus becomes the only punter in San Francisco history to go to the Pro Bowl more than once. Tom Wittum was the NFC's punter in the 1975 game.

Smith, a nine-year NFL veteran, will be making his first trip to the Pro Bowl. His second season with the 49ers in 2009 was a lot like his first as he excelled along San Francisco's defensive front while ranking second on the team with six sacks and leading all 49ers defensive linemen in tackles (90), quarterback pressures (78) and quarterback hits (52).

"This is a great opportunity for me to represent my team in Miami … it's been a long time coming," Smith said. "To be able to go there and play with four of my teammates makes it even better."

Smith, who also had two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries this past season, will head into the 2010 season with a streak of 139 consecutive starts, which is by far the longest streak of any current NFL defensive lineman.



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