49ers 2011 Season Review: Defense Front Seven

In celebration of the 49ers remarkable turnover this season, Niner Noise has reviewed each position and handed out grades.  Today also marks the one year anniversary of the hiring of Jim Harbaugh.  Who would have thought the 49ers would be in the playoffs as a second seed and winners of the NFC West a year ago from today?

The 49ers season of revival in 2011 was engineered by Harbaugh as he brought in the right coaches, kept the rights one from the previous regime, and installed the offense, defense and special teams.  No matter how good the coaches or the system a team sets up, you have to execute everything on the field when it counts.  The 49ers at all positions this season accomplished this.  A perfect storm of the right coaches, players peaking with career seasons that included players already on the roster, along with the free agents signed by the 49ers, came together to catapult them back into the playoffs.  Here is a look back at the 49ers 2011 season:

Quarterbacks season reviewed by Eric Melendez

Wide receivers/tight ends season reviewed by Jason Bertolucci

Offensive line reviewed by Matt Hamm

Defensive backs reviewed by Mike Zamora

Running backs season reviewed by David Estrada

Special teams reviewed by Jared Quan

Click read more to view the Defense Front Seven’s season review:

With all the accolades Jim Harbaugh deserves for the turnaround of this franchise, there is one group that didn’t need that much help. The defense of the Niners has been good the last few years, but this year was something special.  As we all saw, this season scoring in the NFL was up from 41 to 44.5 combined points per game. That means teams averaged around 22 points a game allowed. The 49ers allowed just 14.3 points per game and only 3 times this season did a team score over 22 points; week 17 against the Rams (27), week 4 versus the Eagles (23), and week 2 in overtime to Dallas (27).

As all great defenses go, it starts up front. The front 7 unit of our defense is perhaps the best in football. Don’t believe me? Name one other defense that has arguably the best linebacker in the league and he wasn’t even the best player on your front 7? While you’re at it try and name the last defense rookie of the year candidate that wasn’t even a starter for his team. The 49ers have great depth to match their great players.

Individual Grades

Justin Smith was able to record 7.5 sacks and he forced 3 fumbles. I don’t know which play was bigger, his forced fumble against the Eagles late to shut down the comeback or the batted ball against the Giants that iced the game. While I don’t think he is the most gifted player, no one gives as much effort as he does. There is reason the 11 year veteran is on his way to his second consecutive pro bowl.    Grade A

Isaac Sopoaga- While he doesn’t get the big numbers, he contributes by constantly drawing double teams at the point of attack. His ability to take up space at the nose tackle position allows the linebackers like Willis and Bowman to pile up their tackle counts. Overall he needs to become better of shedding blocks as a pass rusher, but for a guy that switched positions he did pretty well. Grade B

Ray Mcdonald had 6 sacks 2 forced fumbles in his 2011 campaign. After signing a 5 year $20 million dollar deal in late July, Ray had a decent year.  I’d like to see more out of him though. With as much attention as the other guys get in the front 7, he has opportunities in one-on-one situations. Grade C

Ahmad Brooks ended up with a total of 7 sacks on the season, which is better than the guy he replaced. While I never cared for Manny Lawson, I didn’t know what to expect out of Brooks coming into this year. Whenever a player has been waived by the team that drafted him, ends up on your team and gets waived again, only to end up back on that your team again it normally means he’s a career backup. Brooks is still a young, growing player and I think 1 offseason of hard work can get him to another level.  Grade B-

NaVorro Bowman was able to lead the team with 143 tackles and also recorded 2 sacks. In only his 2nd season Bowman looked like a veteran pro bowler. If we can keep him and Willis at linebacker for the next 10 years, there’s no reason they couldn’t be considered one of the best LB duos of all time. Bowman was snubbed out of a pro bowl spot in my opinion, but that normally happens to linebackers and guys that it’s their first year of top performance.   Grade A+

Patrick Willis quick stats- 97 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and an interception.  Sure he didn’t put up the numbers he normally does, but that’s because of the downtime from the hamstring. I truly believe that if the 49ers hadn’t locked up the division, Willis would have been back a week or 2 sooner. Now the best linebacker in the game is 100% the most important time of the year. The heart and soul of the defense also made his 5th pro bowl. Not bad for a guy who is only 26. Grade A

Aldon Smith- With 14 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, number 99 had an amazing rookie campaign. I personally questioned the pick when it came down in last year’s draft. An edge rusher was a huge need, but I really thought we were going to take Fairley or bust on a quarterback. I’m glad this regime is smarter than that. Smith took advantage of many things this year. He had fresh legs coming off the bench, Justin Smith was drawing a lot of attention, but that doesn’t diminish what he was able to accomplish.  I expect him to be a starter next year, and there are a few things he’ll have to work on. Play recognition is one and I would like to see how he does against the run. The A- grade is due to the fact the he was a situation player and not a starter, and it gives him reason to keep improving. Grade A-

Parys Haralson had 2 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Haralson is probably the hardest player to judge. He played mostly on early downs and running situations so he wasn’t given the opportunity to pile up stats. His time as a starter is running out with the emergence of A. Smith. I’d expect the change to come this off-season, with that said I think he is better against the run and the 49ers were first in stopping it. He did his job, and you didn’t hear him complaining about his playing time diminishing, a true team player. Grade C


It’s impressive anytime a group can set an NFL record by not allowing a rushing touchdown for the first 14 weeks of the season. This group also only allowed just 77 yards a game on the ground to lead the NFL. The best part of this is how young this linebacker core is. There really is no reason why this defense can’t continue to have these types of years for the next half decade.  Justin Smith is the oldest player in this defensive front, but he still has a few top years left in him.

The pressure and spotlight will be on this group in the playoffs. We will definitely be facing a talented team with a good qb ( Drew Brees, Eli Manning, or Matt Ryan are the possible division round match-ups).

Overall this group had a tremendous year and they are the main reason we are 13-3 and back in the playoffs. Overall Grade A

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Tags: Ahmad Brooks Aldon Smith Isaac Sopoaga Justin Smith Navorro Bowman Parys Haralson Patrick Willis Ray McDonald

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