Top-5 defenders not named Smith, Willis, Bowman or Smith

Nothing’s going on at Niners headquarters this week, we’ve broken down the offense, now let’s talk about the defense.

It’s the best defense in the league – we know that.

It has no weak links. Last year I wrote that Dashon Goldson was the weak link, and that was pretty silly, I admit. The entire starting lineup is strong.

We know there are two great players – Justin Smith and Patrick Willis.

We know there are two borderline great players – Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman.

Of the rest of the Niners defenders, who are the top-five?

1. DT Ray McDonald – He can stop the run, collapse the pocket and play all three downs. He recorded 5.5 sacks in the regular season and 2.5 in the NFC Championship Game. He can beat most right guards one-on-one, and if an opposing team double teams him, that frees up space for OLB Ahmad Brooks to rush the quarterback. He’s a force and he makes his teammates’ jobs easier. The heart of the Niners defense is their front-seven, and the heart of their front seven is the defensive tackles – Ray McDonald and, of course, Justin Smith. They set the tone, which is they will push the defense back, stop the run and relentlessly pressure the quarterback.

2. OLB Ahmad Brooks – Like McDonald, Brooks plays all three downs for the Niners D. He’s the only outside linebacker on the team who’s good at everything he’s supposed to be good at – stopping the run, rushing the QB and covering receivers. On the other hand, he’s not great at any of those three things either. But he’s a fine player at a vital position in the Niners’ front seven.

3. CB Carlos Rogers – Like every Niners DB, Rogers benefits from the front-seven – its persistent pressure and its negation of the running game. Still, Rogers played like one of the best cover corners in the NFL last season. He can shadow the best flankers and slot receivers. Before he signed with the Niners some people knocked him for his hands – they said he couldn’t catch – but he caught six picks last season and made the Pro Bowl, so his hands weren’t an issue.

4. FS Dashon Goldson – A big play free safety who tended to play well in the wins and poorly in the losses. He’s very aggressive, and the Niners secondary absolutely needs him darting around the field crunching people and intercepting passes (he picked six last season), but he also gives up big plays because he’s so aggressive. His style of play is a double-edged sword, but the Niners defense can’t function without him because they don’t have a good enough backup. Early last season, the pass defense fell apart without Goldson against the Cowboys.

5. SS Donte Whitner – He’s not great in coverage, but he’s good, and he’s a very good tackler. He’s a big reason the Niners red-zone defense is so excellent. Opposing players rarely gain yards after the catch near the end zone against the Niners because quite often Donte Whitner stops them in their tracks.

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