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49ers defense making strides for new coordinator

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP)

Ray McDonald's shoulder-length dreadlocks flap from his helmet as he shoves through the offensive line for a sack. A tattooed Justin Smith comes at the quarterback with an attacking mentality that has helped San Francisco's defense become one of the best in the NFL.

Parys Haralson is bringing it, too. All-Pro Patrick Willis, well, his dependability goes without saying.

The defense showed in Week 1 the kind of difference it can make when things are clicking in new coordinator Vic Fangio's system. McDonald is now a regular starter and surprising his coaches. He recorded his first sack since 2009 in a season-opening 33-17 win over the Seahawks. Haralson and Smith had two sacks apiece.

The challenge will be greater this Sunday, when Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys come to Candlestick Park with something to prove. They blew a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead to lose their opener 27-24 to the New York Jets on Sunday night.

And Fangio doesn't want to get ahead of himself. There's still plenty of work to do. The 49ers haven't had a winning record or been to the playoffs since 2002.

''It takes more than one game and the preseason,'' Fangio said Thursday. ''But really your team evolves during the season. You kind of get a feel, both from the coaches' standpoint and the players' just what your dominant personality is going to be, what style best suits you. That could change from week to week also.''

McDonald and Smith took part in workouts at San Jose State during the lockout this summer. McDonald has picked up plenty by watching Smith do his job.

''Everybody kind of follows him and he leads by example,'' McDonald said. ''We trained really hard over there at San Jose State and it really came out. It's kind of hard to keep up with him. He has like a nonstop motor.''

McDonald's breakout game last week was especially noticeable. In his first start since 2008, he took down Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson on third down to thwart the Seahawks' first drive.

McDonald had two other hits on Jackson and finished with six tackles.

He was close on so many plays last year.

''It felt good,'' McDonald said. ''I put the emphasis on that this offseason to finish plays that I really didn't finish last year. That was my main focus coming into this season.''

McDonald signed a $20 million, five-year contract in late July, quite the long-term commitment for someone who had never been a regular starter.

Yet new coach Jim Harbaugh had a good feeling all along about McDonald, someone he liked ''right away as a guy and as a person.''

''Watched the tape on Ray and we all felt that here's a guy that's just about ready to explode onto the scene,'' Harbaugh said. ''It's kind of like there have been some tremors, some earthquake tremors have been reported and sighted on the Richter scale and here's a guy that the big one could be coming. That's why Ray was such a high priority for us to re-sign and get back on our football team. He had a marvelous game.''

The 27-year-old McDonald had started only nine games in his first four NFL seasons, all in 2008. But he has emerged as the starter on the left end - eager for the new challenge and responsibility.

Smith has been a good example, starting 156 straight games.

McDonald would love to establish such a run.

''I guess they've seen over the last couple of years what I've been doing, even though I've played sparingly,'' McDonald said. ''They recognized that and I'm glad they signed me to a long-term deal.''

While McDonald often was on the field in passing situations, he doesn't understand the criticism that he couldn't defend the run.

Now, he's getting his chance to do both. At last.

''I'm trying to show everybody that I'm an every-down player, which I am,'' he said. ''When you come out and play good in the season opener, it should set the tone for the rest of the season.''

Tagged: 49ers, Seahawks, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald

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