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49ers Front 7 Works Together

Posted Nov 30, 2012

When NaVorro Bowman inked his five-year contract extension with the 49ers earlier this week, Ray McDonald didn’t ask for a cut, but he probably could have.

Bowman and the rest of the 49ers linebackers have become one of the league’s best groups under the direction of Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio since the start of 2011. But the team knows the second level of defense wouldn’t be nearly as successful without the trio of McDonald, Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga on the defensive line.

The steamrolling front seven of San Francisco has arguably been the league’s best over the past two seasons. So when McDonald gets double-teamed by opposing offensive linemen, he doesn’t see it as a burden.

“I enjoy it,” McDonald said. “If I’m getting doubled, that means somebody else is making a play and that’s how we see it. We’re happy for our teammates when that happens.”

The way things are playing out, McDonald and the core of the 49ers defense will be together for years to come.

McDonald, who signed a five-year extension with the club in 2011, was happy to see Bowman get his new contract done as well. In fact, McDonald, Carlos Rogers and Vernon Davis each reportedly restructured their respective deals so the team could re-sign Bowman.

Not only does it keep the All-Pro locked up in a 49ers uniform until 2018, but it keeps the linebacking corps together until 2015. Fellow All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis (signed through 2016), Ahmad Brooks (2017) and Aldon Smith (2015) have also agreed to long-term deals, which bodes well for 49ers teams of the future.

“We all just feed off each other,” McDonald said. “We work together. When we see Aldon and Ahmad getting sacks on the inside, that makes me and Justin play harder. When they see me and Justin on the inside getting pressure on the quarterback and help stop the run, they feed off it.”

As talented as the quartet of linebackers is, it’s probably not the best group Fangio has coached throughout this accomplished career. Not yet, anyways.

From 1986-94 Fangio was the New Orleans linebackers coach, overseeing arguably the greatest set of linebackers in NFL history. The Dome Patrol, comprised of Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling, stayed together from 1986-92 and became one of the NFL’s most feared foursomes in that span. They totaled 18 Pro Bowls in that seven-year stretch and all four were voted to the 1992 Pro Bowl.

For Fangio, the bar has been set high.

“Before I start answering any questions about comparing those groups,” Fangio said, “these guys need to be together a little bit longer. So, maybe next year at this time I’ll give you a good answer.”

In his experience, Fangio has found communication between players to be one of the biggest benefits to keeping a group together. Not only is it verbal communication, but it’s non-verbal cues that can help 11 players play as one.

“You get good players playing together in the same system for that long of a period, good things are going to happen,” Fangio said. “And they learn each other, things become second nature. And the first time they have to communicate a tough situation isn’t the first time anymore. It’s the third, it’s the fourth, it’s the fifth.”

In 11 games as a unit, the 49ers linebackers have played Dome Patrol-esque. Aldon Smith leads the NFL with 16.5 sacks, while Willis and Bowman are making strong cases to repeat as All-Pros in 2012 and Ahmad Brooks is looking like a complete player on the outside.

Coupled with the other long-term signings like McDonald’s and Rogers’ and smart draft picks in recent years, Fangio said he likes the direction the front office is taking.

“I think it speaks well for the organization that they’ve been able to in this age of salary cap,” Fangio said. “And it’s not always easy to keep your good players together. I think it says a lot for them the way they’re managing the cap and getting that done. Hopefully we can keep those guys together for a long time.”

While he’s not quite putting this group of 49ers linebackers up with the Dome Patrol just yet, Fangio is saving room on the mantle.

“Yeah, I think the potential’s there,” Fangio said. “But, we’ve got to do it. We all know what the word potential means. Again, those guys did it for seven straight years together. This is really their first year together as a starting unit because Aldon’s first year starting. And it’s only Ahmad’s second year starting. It’s only NaVorro’s second year starting. So, these guys have got to do it over a long period of time at a level of excellence to get to that status that you’re alluding to.”

First things first, the defense has to slow down St. Louis. The 49ers will have their hands full against the talented tailback duo of Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson, which has combined for 1,175 yards this year.

San Francisco experienced the Rams rushing attack first-hand in Week 10, when Jackson racked up 101 hard-fought yards on 29 carries. The Rams controlled the early tenor of the game behind their rushing attack, something McDonald said the defense has talked about since the game.

The contest eventually finished in a rare 24-24 tie, leaving the feeling of some unfinished business in the 49ers locker room.

“We played within the last month, so they’re a very familiar team,” McDonald said. “Pretty sure both teams have a bad taste in their mouth, so it’s going to be a good game.”

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