The defense of the 49ers has been the backbone of the team’s success for the past two seasons, and Wednesday, it was handsomely rewarded.
San Francisco led all NFL teams with nine players selected to the Pro Bowl team, including six from the league’s second-ranked defense.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, defensive end Justin Smith, middle linebacker Patrick Willis, free safety Dashon Goldson and strong safety Donte Whitner were all selected as starters, and middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman was chosen as a backup to Willis.
“It says a lot about the team, and how many guys are really playing at a high caliber and how many guys [we have] that just play at an elite level,” said Aldon Smith, who is currently second in the NFL with 19½ sacks.
Willis has become a regular in Hawaii, becoming the first 49ers player to make it to the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons in franchise history.
The six players have played major roles in helping the 49ers allow the third-fewest points per game in the NFL (17.3 points) and second-fewest yards per game (296.5).
On the offensive side of the ball, offensive lineman Joe Staley and Mike Iupati were pegged as starters, while running back Frank Gore, in the midst of his sixth 1,000-yard rushing season, will be a reserve for his fourth trip to the Pro Bowl.
Among the 49ers’ nine players honored, Bowman, Iupati, Aldon Smith and Whitner will be making their first appearance.
For Whitner, it was extra sweet after coming close a couple of times previously in his seven-year career.
“It’s a long time coming,” Whitner said. “I was alternate once in Buffalo and I was an alternate last year here. So that’s not really a good feeling. But actually making it, actually being recognized by your peers, coaches and teammates as a player that deserves to be in the game, it actually, feels great.”
After the 49ers’ nine picks, the next closest teams were the Houston Texans with eight selections and the New England Patriots with seven.
The Pro Bowl will be played Jan. 27 in Honolulu.