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49ers Defensive Ends Justin Smith & Ray McDonald: A Dynamic Duo?

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The 49ers starting defensive line to date has consisted of Justin Smith at right defense end, Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle, and Isaac Sopoaga at left defensive end. Sopoaga gets a lot of grief, sometimes deserved and sometimes unwarranted. As we discuss possible replacements for him, I'm curious where folks see Ray McDonald fitting into the equation. Ninjames looked at the defensive ends a couple weeks ago and expressed disappointment in McDonald's performance in 2010. Is it possible the stats don't tell the whole story?

Recently the folks at Pro Football Focus were kind enough to provide me with a media pass to their premium stats. They provide rankings of players that sometimes raise eyebrows, but they also provide accumulated statistical information. For defensive ends in particular, they look at quarterback sacks, hits and pressures. I can't find a description of what they consider a "pressure" so there is some level of subjectivity to it. However, even if it's a little off, the numbers are intriguing.

The database breaks down defensive ends by 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. I took a look at it and the top 3-4 defensive end in terms of quarterback pressure was Justin Smith with 39 pressures. That shouldn't surprise many people given how awesome Smith has been with the 49ers. What is more intriguing is that PFF lists Ray McDonald as second with 31 quarterback pressures. What's particularly impressive is that Smith is listed as playing 816 snaps, while McDonald is listed with 580 snaps. One drawback to McDonald's performance is that he was flagged for five penalties, which led 3-4 defensive ends.

For comparison's sake, McDonald's 31 QB pressures would have been good for 20th among all defensive ends. 4-3 defensive ends generally get more involvement in the pass rush, which explains why they have more QB pressures. For an additional comparison, McDonald finished 19th (among 3-4 DEs) with 7 QB pressures in 2008 and 14th with 13 QB pressures in 2009.

Is McDonald destined to be a situational pass rusher or could he work as an every down defensive end? Part of this also draws us back into the question of whether the 49ers should switch back to a 4-3 defense. But in the current 3-4 alignment, will McDonald evolve beyond a straight pass rusher? And does it really even matter if he doesn't given his effectiveness in pressuring the quarterback?