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Cut From the Same Cloth

Posted Dec 15, 2011



You’d be hard pressed to find a pair of defensive linemen that get along better than Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.

Scratch that.

You’d be hard pressed to find a defensive duo that gets along better than Smith and McDonald, while consistently putting together dominant performances.

The 49ers starting defensive tackles in the team’s 3-4 scheme have been immovable objects in their first years starting as opposite book ends on the defensive line.

Smith, who’s made back-to-back Pro Bowls after signing with the 49ers prior to the 2008 season, has been a mentor to McDonald, a 49ers third-round draft pick in 2007, who re-signed with the team this offseason.

Ever since Smith joined the 49ers as a free agent in McDonald’s second year in the league, the two have built a close bond from their working relationship. Cut from the same cloth, but hailing from different regions of the United States, the defensive linemen from different walks of life have gotten close over the years while contributing to the defensive line success of the San Francisco 49ers.

“Ray’s a football guy, knows his stuff, works hard and it’s definitely translating for him on the field,” said Smith, the Jefferson City, Mo. native of his friend from Pahokee, Fla. “I think he’s having a hell of a year, a Pro Bowl year. He’s one of the reasons why our run defense is where it is.”

The 49ers defense, the best Smith said he’s ever been a part of in his 11 seasons in the NFL, hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 35 games and has yet to allow a rushing score in 2011.

Thanks to contributions from Smith, McDonald, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and rest of the league’s top-ranked rush defense, the 49ers have become the first team since the 1920 Decatur Staleys to not allow a rushing touchdown in the first 13 games of a season.

The opportunity to go 16 games without allowing a rushing score isn’t lost on Smith.

“I’m closer to the end than the beginning for sure, so I take a lot of pride in that,” said Smith, who is the third 49ers defensive linemen to record 6-or-more sacks in four straight seasons. “I think everybody in here does. Sometimes when you’re younger you say, ‘Oh, this will happen again.’ But for me knowing it’s a special defense, we have an opportunity to do something that’s never been done before in the NFL. That’s something you can hang your hat on. Hopefully it’ll translate to us winning some playoff games and a Super Bowl.”

Before their run-stuffing ways translate to postseason success for the NFC West champs, the 49ers defense will face one of its stiffest challenges Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have scored nine rushing touchdowns on the year.

As McDonald and every member of the 49ers defense can attest, they’ll once again follow the lead of the player simply known around the locker room as “Cowboy.”

“Justin’s a great leader,” said McDonald, who has 71 tackles and 4.0 sacks on the year. “Just being around him every day you really learn how you should work, how you should take each day like it’s your last.”

Unsurprising for Smith, a player who stays away from the media limelight, he credited the defense’s success to coaching and his hard-working teammates.

So while he may be perceived as setting the benchmark for the group, in his mind, it’s a result of the hard-working players inside the team’s defensive meeting room. That’s really what’s allowed the defensive line to enjoy unprecedented success.

“Most D-linemen are cut from the same elk, and this room is no different,” Smith said. “We all like to work out hard. We’re around each other doing a lot of the same things. It’s like that around the league in most defensive line rooms. I think this room is one of the tightest rooms I’ve ever been in.”

Smith learned early on how important it was to be a mentor to younger teammates. He respected the veteran linemen on his Cincinnati Bengals teams for the first seven years of his professional career, which began in 2001 as the league’s No. 4 overall pick.

“I saw how they did things, how they carried themselves. Not just in football,” Smith said. “That’s one thing coming from college to the pros; you’re not here for four years. You’re not here on scholarship. You’re not guaranteed to get to your senior year, so you have to carry yourself that way. I learned from those guys and those guys who’ve learned it from me, they’ll teach other guys. And they’re already doing it.

“Ray’s a leader in our room and people look up to him. Isaac (Sopoaga), same way. Ricky (Jean Francois) is starting to take on that role and it’s just one of those things, you keep passing the torch.”

The defensive line is even tighter thanks to the leadership of defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who acts like a father to all of his players.

“Tomsula doesn’t try micromanage everything,” McDonald shared. “He knows what his players are good at and he lets them do that. A lot of D-line coaches, try to make guys play a certain way when it’s not their way of playing. Jim does a good job of he knows what we’re good at and he lets us play to our strengths.”

The run-stuffing strength of the 49ers defense has been noticeable to many. USA Football recently honored Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to its All-Fundamentals Team for their exemplary football techniques for youth players to emulate.

Smith said the honor goes back to his position coach.

“I think there could have been a lot more of us up there (to accept the award) actually, but I think it’s a testament to our coaches,” Smith said. “Tomsula, he taught us all how to play the 3-4 and it shows what he’s been doing, too.”

Having played with Smith and Sopoaga, and under Tomsula over the past five years, McDonald appreciates the unique bond between himself, his coach and his teammates.

“That’s what football does,” McDonald added. “It brings people together from all different parts of the country. That’s just what it is, it does that for you.”