The San Francisco 49ers go into the bye week with a record of 6-2. There was a lot of doubt after the 49ers suffered back-to-back losses to the Seattle Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts. Opponents were running the ball effectively and the defense struggled to get off of the field. Fast forward to last week and you will see that a new monster has emerged. This 49ers defense has gotten back on track and that is without the services of one of the NFL’s best pass rushers, Aldon Smith.
Currently, the 49ers are ninth in the NFL in total yards allowed. They are giving up 325.1 yards per game. The rushing defense is not the same as it used to be when it was nearly impossible to gain 100 yards rushing against them. They are giving up 104.6 yards per game, which puts them 14th among NFL teams. To date, the 49ers have given up seven rushing touchdowns which equals the amount they gave up all of last year.
Many thought that the 49ers pass defense would fall off greatly due to the loss of All-Pro free safety Dashon Goldson. The pass defense currently is eighth in the NFL, giving up 220.5 yards per game. The slight decrease is largely due to the emergence of rookie free safety Eric Reid and the rebirth of strong safety Donte Whitner. Reid has filled in admirably while Whitner has improved primarily in his coverage. Whitner gave up eight big plays for touchdowns, which was the most out of all safeties in 2012. This season is much different.
Grading the San Francisco 49ers defense is an easy thing to do because of how well they are playing. Let’s take a look at how they have done:
Defensive Line: This is an area that has required the 49ers to piece together some options. Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois both left via free agency. This created an opportunity for Ian Williams to become the starter after being a practice squad player the two previous years. Unfortunately, Williams fell victim to a chop block by J.R. Sweezy of the Seattle Seahawks. This cheap shot ended up resulting in a broken ankle for Williams.
The next man up was defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. Dorsey has played very well and has taken over as the first team defensive tackle. Dorsey has always been a force against the run but he has recently shown the ability rush the passer as well. Tony Jerrod Eddie and Damarcus Dobbs have also stepped up while Dorsey and Williams have dealt with their injuries. One of if not both of them are possibilities to get released now that the 49ers will be getting some players back. Quinton Dial has already returned and he has played both at defensive end and tackle. Look for his role to expand as the season goes on.
Tank Carradine is one player that will draw some interest. He is a very talented pass rusher that comes to the NFL from Florida State. Carradine has spent extensive time in the weight room and should be a presence once he regains the confidence in his knee again after suffering an injury to his knee.
Justin Smith has provided steady leadership and has been a force on the line. He doesn’t have the high sack numbers but he has gotten quite a bit of pressure on the quarterback. Ray McDonald is always a force against he run.
Corey Lemonier is the most surprising defensive linemen. He has gotten the opportunity to get some snaps after Smith developed his issues. Lemonier has made the best of it by showing how good of an edge rusher he can be. He is used primarily in nickel packages as a defensive end.
Linebackers: The linebacker corps is one of the best in the NFL. Navorro Bowman has put forth a performance that warrants Defensive Player of the Year mention. He stepped up in a major way starting with the 49ers game against the St.Louis Rams. Patrick Willis was not playing in that game but he has also stepped up when he is healthy. Michael Wilhoite filled in well while Willis was out. Bowman said that he noticed Withoite do some things that Willis has done on the fly. This shows that Wilhoite was applying the different things that Bowman and Willis have filled him in with. Bowman and Willis are the best inside linebacker duo in the NFL.
The outside linebacker position has been pretty good as well. There aren’t many OLBs that can dictate the outside lanes like Ahmad Brooks. He does an excellent job of funneling running plays back inside by setting the edge. Brooks is also good at dropping back into coverage. Aldon Smith still leads the team in sacks despite missing most of the season. He is a top notch pass rusher that will increase his numbers when he gets back on the field. Dan Skuta has played well in Smith’s absence. Last week he returned a fumble for a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Defensive Backs: The secondary is a surprisingly good unit despite losing Goldson (free agent to Buccaneers) and Chris Culliver (ACL injury). Eric Reid is showing why the front office traded up to get him. He is playing at a near Pro Bowl level. Reid is a very solid tackler that is rarely out of position against both the pass and the run. He has benefited from the tutelage of Donte Whitner, who is also enjoying a good year. Whitner was always very solid against the run, but this year he has greatly improved against the pass. His veteran leadership has strengthened the secondary.
Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have been steady corners. Brown has been guilty of some pass interference penalties that have extended a few key drives but he has done a good job of not giving up big plays. Rogers has been key when it comes to covering slot receivers. He bumps inside on nickel packages while Tramaine Brock comes into the game. Brock has stepped up and taken over the job from Nnamdi Asomugha. On the year, Brock has two interceptions, one of them was a pick six.
The defense is a prime reason why the 49ers were able to rip off their five-game win streak. Yes, the team has scored more than 30 points in each of those games but don’t forget, the defense has given them great field position and has caused a lot of turnovers.
As Jim Harbaugh said, “It’s like an olive jar. You hold it upside down and you pull one of them out then a lot more come falling out afterwards.”
That is a classic reference to the onslaught of turnovers that the defense has caused recently. There is a lot to be excited about in the second half. Tank Carradine will be a major force once he gets into game shape. Lemonier will continue to develop. Eric Reid is already at full speed and playing like an all pro. Bowman is playing like a defensive mvp and things will get even better when Aldon Smith makes his return.