49ers Week 15 grades: Defense and special teams

FOXBORO, Ma. – The 49ers beat the Patriots 41-34 and clinched a playoff berth. Here are the grades for the 49ers’ defense and special teams.

Defensive line: B. Justin Smith did not play particularly well, and then he left the game with an elbow injury. On the other hand, Ray McDonald played his best game of the season. He had half a sack all season, and he had two Sunday night. This group did a good job stopping the Patriots top running back, Stevan Ridley, but they could not stop the scatback, Danny Woodhead, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored 2 touchdowns.

Linebackers: B. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman had 22 tackles between the two of them. Bowman also forced a fumble. Aldon Smith was in Tom Brady’s face the entire first quarter, but he didn’t get hardly any pressure the rest of the game. He did intercept a screen pass. He did not record a sack. Ahmad Brooks did not have a sack or a tackle. These guys couldn’t get to Brady in the second half, and as a result the Patriots scored four touchdowns in about 11 minutes.

Secondary: C. Carlos Rogers intercepted a pass and returned it to the Patriots’ five yard line. Donte Whitner forced a fumble, Dashon Goldson recovered it and returned it 66 yards to the Patriots three yard line, which set up a touchdown. But over the last 18 minutes of the game, these guys were dominated. Rogers couldn’t cover Wes Welker, and neither Tarell Brown nor Chris Culliver could cover Brandon Lloyd. Whitner also gave up a touchdown to Aaron Hernandez. And Goldson was flagged for another helmet-to-helmet hit.

Special teams: C. David Akers missed another field goal, this time a 39-yarder. He pushed it to the left. In warm-ups, he was hooking kicks wide right. He was all over the place. The 49ers should cut him. It seems he’s lost all confidence. Ted Ginn Jr. did not play well, either. He fumbled a punt, and he almost fumbled two – a bouncing punt came about a centimeter away from hitting his shin. He was making Kyle Williams mistakes. It seems Ginn has lost his confidence, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if he loses his punt returning job. He already lost his kick returning duties to LaMichael James. If Ginn can’t catch punts, what does he bring to the team? LaMichael James, on the other hand, is establishing himself as a lethal kick returner. He averaged 33 yards per return, and he made perhaps the biggest play of the game. After the Patriots tied the game 31-31, James returned the kickoff 62 yards, which set up Crabtree’s TD pass one play later. If James can catch, he should be the 49ers punt returner, too.

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