Smith and Willis both selected as NFC starters
The 49ers may be running at the moment as the No. 2 team in the NFC behind defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay, but they have more Pro Bowl players this season than any other team in the conference. Eight Niners were named to the NFC squad on Tuesday – tying New England for the most of any NFL team – and 10 other San Francisco gained recognition as Pro Bowl alternates.
The Niners, champions of the NFC West at 12-3, had one more player selected than the Packers, champions of the NFC North that have the only record in the NFL better than the 49ers at 14-1. The 49ers currently are in line for the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed behind the Packers and can clinch that berth and a first-round bye with a win at St. Louis in their season finale Sunday.
The 49ers had four players selected to start for the NFC in the Jan. 29 game at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu: Linebacker Patrick Willis, defensive end Justin Smith, cornerback Carlos Rogers and offensive tackle Joe Staley.
Willis and Smith were the only 49ers to make the NFC roster last year. Rogers and Staley each will be making their first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Two other 49ers technically will be starters as they were the only NFC players named at their respective positions: Kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee.
Running back Frank Gore – a NFC starter in 2006 – will be making his third trip to the Pro Bowl and free safety Dashon Goldson was named to the NFC squad for the first time.
The Niners had 18 players overall gain Pro Bowl recognition as linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks, tight end Vernon Davis, center Jonathan Goodwin, guard Mike Iupati, defensive tackle Ray McDonald, fullback Bruce Miller, strong safety Donte Whitner, special teamer Blake Costanzo and return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. all were named as NFC alternates.
A brief rundown of San Francisco’s eight Pro Bowlers, the Niners’ largest contingent since landing 10 players on the NFC squad after the 1995 season:
DAVID AKERS: The 13th-year veteran earned his sixth career Pro Bowl appearance and first as a member of the 49ers. He set the NFL record with 42 made field goals this season, surpassing the previous record of 40 made by Neil Rackers in 2005. He has set career highs in field goals made (42), field goals attempted (49), and points (156). Akers’ 156 points also set the franchise record for most points scored in a single season.
DASHON GOLDSON: The fifth-year veteran leads all NFC safeties with a career-high six interceptions, which ties Rogers for the team lead. He also has 77 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and eight passes defensed despite missing the first two games of the season with a knee injury.
FRANK GORE: Gore is second in the NFC and fourth in in the NFL with 1,202 yards rushing on 275 carries (4.4 avg.) with eight rushing touchdown. He also has 17 receptions for 114 yards this season. This is Gore’s fifth 1,000-yard season, a franchise record.
ANDY LEE: The eight-year veteran is making his third Pro Bowl appearance. He leads the NFC and ranks second in the NFL with a 49.8 gross punting average and leads the NFL with a 43.5 net punting average. A Pro Bowler and All-Pro selection in 2007 and 2009, Lee has a chance to break his own single season franchise record in both gross (47.8 in 2008) and net average (41.0 in 2007) in this weekend’s season finale.
CARLOS ROGERS: The seventh-year veteran is making his first trip to the Pro Bowl. He has set a career high with six interceptions, which ranks tied for first on the team and second among NFC cornerbacks. He has also added 51 tackles, one tackle for loss and a team-high 18 passes defensed, which ranks tied for third in the NFC and tied for sixth in the NFL.
JUSTIN SMITH: The 11th-year veteran earns his third consecutive Pro Bowl appearance after making his first trip in 2010. He ranks third on the team with 101 tackles, second with 6.5 sacks and third with nine tackles for loss while adding three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and two passes defensed. He also leads the team with 68 quarterback pressures and 56 quarterback hits.
JOE STALEY: The fifth-year veteran, who protects quarterback Alex Smith’s blind side at left tackle, is the catalyst of an offensive line that helped the team rush for 1,928 yards this season, ranking seventh in the NFL. Staley and the offensive line were awarded the Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award in Week 5, helping the offense rush for 213 yards on the ground while not allowing a sack.
PATRICK WILLIS: The two-time first-team All-Pro becomes the player in team history to be selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons. Selected again as a starter, Willis currently ranks second on the team with 115 tackles to go along with two sacks, one interception, a career-high four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 12 passes defensed.