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Ray McDonald Works Behind the Scenes

Posted Oct 4, 2012

Ray McDonald might not be a household name around America, but he’s impressed those who matter most. Ask teammates and coaches at 49ers headquarters about McDonald, and they’ll tell you about one of the cornerstones of the team’s tenacious defense.

On gamedays, he lines up on the defensive front opposite of Justin Smith. When it comes to bookends at the first level of the defense, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hard-working and talented tandem.

“He has a tremendous impact on any game and on our defense,” 49ers coordinator Vic Fangio said of McDonald. “When teams have a hard time running, he’s right in the middle of all of that. Whether he’s getting credited with a tackle or not is irrelevant.”

A look at the box score doesn’t do McDonald justice. Take Sunday’s 34-0 win against the New York Jets as an example.

McDonald was only credited with two tackles on the afternoon, but his constant pressure on Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in the pocket was just as valuable as any part of his team’s dominating defensive effort. In all, New York had just 45 yards rushing, while Sanchez went 13-of-29 for 103 yards and interception.

Run or pass, McDonald is usually in the middle of the action. If he does his job correctly, it usually means players like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are able to patrol the field freely to make big hits.

“He’s the one holding the point up front there and allowing our linebackers and other players to make that play,” Fangio said. “He gives us great pass rush in our nickel stuff and he’s a very, very, very important part of our defense.”

Off the field, McDonald and Smith are among the closest teammates in the locker room. They spent most of the offseason together in the Bay Area working out at team headquarters with few off days and it’s translated to a stellar 2012 season.

McDonald was elevated to a starter’s role before the 2011 campaign and has been building chemistry with Smith and the rest of the 49ers defense ever since. He said the entire unit feeds off Smith’s relentless energy throughout the game.

“The whole team does,” McDonald said. “He’s been a part of this league a long time and he’s a great player, a great leader. He just brings that tough, hard-nosed attitude to the team. He plays with great energy.”

Before this season, Alex Boone had the unenviable task of going against McDonald on a daily basis during practice.

“That was a lot of fun,” Boone said. “Not really.”

But since being moved to the first-string offensive line this year, Boone hasn’t had to practice against McDonald much, which is good and bad at the same time.

“Ray’s a great player, I’ve got worlds of respect for him,” Boone said. “He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s quick – he’s the prototypical defensive end in a 3-4. I love watching him play, I love going against him. He’s a good gauge as to where I’m at, but sometimes I’m happy now that the season’s going on we don’t have to go against each other.”

This week, McDonald the 49ers face a Buffalo Bills offense that ranks sixth in the league, averaging 28.8 points per game. The offense runs through its two tailbacks, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, who feature different running styles. While Spiller, who averages 8.3 yards per carry, has established himself as one of the league’s most explosive players, Jackson features a more traditional running style between the tackles.

“Both of those backs are really, really good,” Fangio said. “These guys are averaging 29 points a game. And the most they’ve scored, I think, was 35. … It’s not like they had one big game that inflated their stats. They’re averaging 29 a game and there’s no accident why they’re getting it. They’ve got good skill players, including the quarterback.”

Ryan Fitzpatrick has been a polarizing figure under center for the Bills over the past couple of seasons. Through four games this year, Fitzpatrick has completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and 7 interceptions while averaging 232.8 yards per game. Fangio also commended Fitzpatrick for his ability to make quick decisions and improvise when needed.

“He’s a good player,” Fangio said. “I think he’s a competent NFL quarterback. He makes good decisions. He gets a quick read on the defense. He gets the ball out pretty quick. He’s only been sacked four times in four games.”

One thing that makes the Bills tough to defend is their ability to run the ball effectively out of three-wide receiver sets. McDonald said the 49ers will have to be sound in their assignments if they expect to be successful on Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park.

“It kind of slows your aggression down a little bit,” McDonald said. “But you still have to play technique and do your job.”

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