The Steelers haven’t produced a 100-yard rusher in seven games (Week 6 vs. Jacksonville). They only have two 100-yard rushers all season (Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer).
That streak is likely to be extended Monday Night when the Steelers travel to San Francisco to take on the run-stingy 49ers. While super-stud LB Patrick Willis will likely get most of the credit for their eye-popping run defense statistics – 3.2 yards per carry, 70 yards per game, zero rushing touchdowns against – the play of their defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald is what should concern the Steelers.
If the season plays out the way it’s begun for the 49ers, it would be surprising not to see Smith as a top three defensive player of the year candidate. Think of Aaron Smith in his prime, but with better pass rush numbers. That’s the kind of season Smith is having – unblockable at his best, barely containable at his worst.
What Smith is doing from the right defensive end position for San Francisco is opening up opportunities for the rest of the defense. And his battery mate, LDE Ray McDonald, is taking full advantage.
McDonald, a fifth-year player from Pahokee, Fla., was a high school teammate of Santonio Holmes. While Holmes gained notoriety at Ohio State and many of McDonald’s teammates from the University of Florida received accolades, McDonald was a third-round draft pick in 2007 – defensive line mates Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey would both end up being first round picks.
He’s steadily improved in each of his five seasons, and is now breaking out as one of the best 3-4 defensive linemen in football. Much of that is due to his versatility. The 49ers have a hybrid scheme in their defensive front seven. They play with three and four down linemen, depending on the situation, and McDonald plays both end and tackle.
He’s equally effective in both, very similar to Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins. This versatility helps the 49ers create chaos along the front seven, making it extremely difficult to move the ball against them. He will test other Florida alum, RT Marcus Gilbert and C Maurkice Pouncey, as well as RG Ramon Foster, in various situations throughout the game.
It certainly helps that the 49ers can generate pressure from a slew of talented defenders, notably Willis and rookie OLB Aldon Smith. But McDonald’s ability to collapse the pocket from the left side will strain an offensive line throughout a game.
The 49ers were upset by Arizona in Week 13, largely due to their sinking offense not being able to sustain drives. McDonald, though, was a beast, particularly early.
With 54 seconds left in the first quarter against Arizona, the Cardinals are pinned at their 1-yard line. The 49ers put four down linemen – McDonald, who’s head up over the right guard, DT Isaac Sopoaga is over the center and Smith is off the left guard. Flanked to either side are LB NaVorro Bowman (left side) and DE Parys Haralson (right).
Cardinals QB John Skelton snaps the ball from an off-set I formation, FB Anthony Sherman goes to the 2-hole (right guard). McDonald (yellow), however, gets a great jump off the snap, whips RG Rex Hadnot, and RB Beanie Wells immediately bounces the play toward the left side. McDonald was one more step away from drawing a safety. Wells gained two yards on the play.
On 2nd-and-8, the 49ers are showing the same defensive front – Bowman, McDonald, Sopoaga, Smith and Haralson. Arizona is in a single back look this time, and motion Sherman from his right to left, squaring up over Bowman.
At the snap, Skelton takes a three-step drop and immediately looks to WR Larry Fitzgerald off to his left. The Cardinals block McDonald with just RT Brandon Keith, who never has a chance on the play. Skelton isn’t even done with his three-step drop before McDonald is a full two yards in the backfield. Skelton has time to make a throw, but Fitzgerald hasn’t cleared CB Tarell Brown’s aggressive coverage. He’s forced to make the throw anyway, and Brown knocks it away, setting up 3rd and long.
On third down, San Francisco plays it a bit more conservatively with four down lineman – Ahmad Brooks, McDonald, Sopoaga and Smith, and drop their linebackers in coverage. San Francisco is looking to stunt Brooks around McDonald – an excellent play call, considering how badly McDonald has beaten both Hadnot and Keith. They were likely to double-team him.
McDonald isn’t double-teamed, he’s triple-teamed by Hadnot, Keith and C Lyle Sendlein. Brooks’ delayed stunt isn’t picked up by Sendlein, and Brooks is able to get in Skelton’s face, negating him a chance to make a clean throw to WR Early Doucet, who’s open on the right side and past the first down marker.
It was a great three-play sequence for McDonald, who was able to draw attention from a combination of three linemen on three different plays. San Francisco allows just two yards on three plays, and one of the league’s best return men – Ted Ginn – is going to field a punt that will give the 49ers excellent field position.
That’s the kind of disruption McDonald brings to this defense, and the Steelers aren’t going to be able to worry only about San Francisco’s superstars, Smith and Willis (assuming he plays). A hobbled Ben Roethlisberger means the 49ers are likely going to bring a lot of pressure up the middle, aiming and getting bodies on the ground around his feet. Whomever will have responsibility for McDonald on each given play (some combination of Gilbert, Foster and Pouncey) are going to have to be prepared for a lightning-fast first step and a lot of power. Don’t be surprised if a few false start penalties occur (Gilbert had two against Cleveland, and that was in Pittsburgh).
Source: Behind the Steel Curtain