After the 2012 season, the San Francisco 49ers made it a point to add more depth to the defensive line. They did just that by adding players both in free agency and the draft. They were smart to do that because in 2013, the 49ers defensive line was shuffled around because of various injuries on the line. Even though they were playing with a makeshift line for some games, the 49ers depth showed.
But just how well did the line actually play? And was it good enough?
Last season, the entire defensive line tallied up 12 sacks. Justin Smith had half of those sacks with 6.5. Followed by Ray McDonald with 3.5 and Glenn Dorsey with two. Some people might point to that stat as a reason why the line needs an upgrade. Obviously teams want the most possible sacks out of all their defensive linemen, but the way the 49ers defense is set up, it’s okay if their line is racking up sacks.
The 49ers base defense is a 3-4 defense, which is three down linemen and four linebackers. The 49ers mostly use their defensive linemen to eat up blockers and let their linebackers get to the passer. Now any sacks, hurries, or hits that the linemen can generate are great, but if one linemen can take up a blocker or two and let Aldon Smith or Ahmad Brooks get to the quarterback, then they’ve done their job.
The defense follows the same philosphy in the run game. When you have four great linebackers like the 49ers do, then you want them to make plays. The 49ers line is one of the best in the league at opening lanes for their linebackers and allow Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to swoop in and make tackles.
Now, this doesn’t mean the line doesn’t and can’t make plays. They can and they do. How many times have you seen Justin Smith blow up run plays before they even begin, or Ray McDonald chase down a runner in the backfield? Everyone on the line is capable of making plays themselves. But when you have a great linebackers, the line sometimes gets lost in the mix.
The 49ers showed that they have a solid rotation of linemen with players like Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs. In fact, because of the depth that the 49ers had, they were able to rotate out Justin Smith and Ray McDonald more than previous years and keep them fresh for longer. They haven’t been able to do that as much in recent years because of the lack of depth.
There was a few injuries along the line throughout the season. Ian Williams broke his ankle in week two, Ray McDonald was out for a few games, and both Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial were out from previous injuries. Next year when the 49ers have all these players back and at full strength, the line should be the strongest it has been during the Harbaugh era.
Many of the early mock drafts have the 49ers going defensive line for their first pick. This might be because they look at the sack numbers and the tackle numbers and judge from there. Many people don’t watch 49er games enough to know how exactly they play. They also don’t follow the team enough to know that the 49ers have plenty of good, young talent just waiting to see the field.
Maybe the defensive line wasn’t elite this year, but they did their jobs and did them well. With their young talent finally coming back from injuries, thhey should be even stronger and better next year.