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49ers mid-season review: Defensive line

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The San Francisco 49ers defensive line has gotten solid work from their starters. Ian Williams in particular has been a strong presence in the middle. What can we expect when Glenn Dorsey returns?

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The San Francisco 49ers are closing in on the end of their bye week, and will be returning to practice on Monday. We are not exactly halfway through the season, but the timing of the bye is close enough that it makes sense to take a look at where everything stands. We will be going through each position over the next week. Thus far we have looked at the quarterbacksrunning backswide receiversoffensive line and tight ends. Today, we move to the defensive line.

Starters: Justin Smith, Ian Williams, Ray McDonald
Reserves: Tony Jerod-Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs, Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine
IR with return designation: Glenn Dorsey
Practice squad: Lawrence Okoye, Mike Purcell
PUP: Kaleb Ramsey

Football Outsiders

Adjusted sack rate: 21st
Adjusted line yards: 4.05 (20th)
Power success: 32nd
Stuffed rank: 27th

Pro Football Focus

Justin Smith: 12.2 (4th) - 11.3 comes against the run
Ray McDonald: 4.9 (15th) - 4.5 comes against the run
Ian Williams: 11.2 (8th) - 3.5 in pass rush, 7.1 against the run

The San Francisco 49ers defensive line has been one of the strengths of this team in 2014. The 49ers are not getting a ton of pass rush pressure from this group, but that is generally by design. Justin Smith is the one guy who normally is a big part of the pass rush. He got off to a strong start in that regard, but has quieted down a bit as of late. Against the run however, the trio up front is very solid.

The most interesting player on this group has probably been Ian Williams. In 2013, he won the nose tackle job over Glenn Dorsey. The 49ers played mostly nickel and dime against the Packers in Week 1 of that season, so Williams made his first official start in Week 2 against the Seahawks. He suffered an ankle/leg injury and was finished almost as quickly as he began. He spent the year rehabbing and four surgeries and the rehab took him up through the beginning of training camp. However, he worked his way back and when Glenn Dorsey suffered his own injury, Williams was back as the starting nose tackle.

Williams was talented coming out of Notre Dame as an undrafted free agent, but he has been a rock in this middle this year. The PFF grades reflect it, but even any "eyeball test" would tell you that he has been a force up the middle. He is not meant to be a huge pass rusher, but he is able bring pressure. And his work in the run is a big reason the 49ers have been fairly solid against the run. They struggled against DeMarco Murray and Ronnie Hillman, but otherwise this group has held up well against the run.

The 49ers head into the second half of the season with Glenn Dorsey scheduled to return as early as late November, but probably sometime in December. His return adds tremendous depth to a group that already has been solid. Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs have rotated in with a decent amount of regularity behind Smith and McDonald. The return of Dorsey could very well send one of them packing come December.

The other two options of course are Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine. Dial has seen some snaps, primarily in mop-up duty. He had 17 defensive snaps against the Broncos, but otherwise his highest total this year was 7. Carradine has been inactive all season, and the return of Dorsey likely means he won't be seeing any playing time soon this year.

It is frustrating because we know he is a generally talented player. He and Vic Fangio have both mentioned it is about better understanding the role he must fill. And now that we're midway through the season, it just does not seem likely that barring injury, he will get a chance to make an impact this year. People will talk about him being a bust as a pick, but unless the team releases him between now and next August, next year's preseason will be make or break time for Tank. It's annoying right now, but I don't think he cannot be written off as a draft pick until after that point if he has not earned at least some kind of rotational role.