Aldon Smith could be out for the rest of the 2013 season. Nose tackle Ian Williams is out with a broken ankle and defensive back Chris Culliver went down with an ACL tear before the preseason kicked off.
The 49ers defense also went to battle without Patrick Willis for two games and yet it’s carried the team to a 4-2 start heading into today’s showdown with the Tennessee Titans.
“They’re definitely doing a great job,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “You looked at [the Arizona] game, the game before, the game before that — really, really outstanding in a lot of areas.”
With Colin Kaepernick under center, fans, pundits and players expected the 49ers’ offense to take off this season. And yet, after six games, they’re ranked 23rd in total offense (332.7 yards per game), 31st in passing offense (191 yards per game) and 13th in points per game (24.2). This isn’t the return to glory that we’d envisioned.
But the defense picked up the slack after the team fell to 1-2 with a home loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3. The unit held the St. Louis Rams to 188 total yards in Week 4, it limited the Houston Texans to 182 passing yards in Week 5 and it forced four turnovers and recorded a safety against the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday.
After six games, the bruised and battered unit is ranked ninth in total defense (319.2 yards per game), sixth in passing defense (206.3) and third in takeaways (13). In the past three games, the defense has forced 10 turnovers, leading to 54 points on the scoreboard.
“Very opportunistic,” Harbaugh said. “You love seeing your defense generate turnovers.”
The defense overcame the losses of Smith, Willis and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who has missed three games with a knee injury, thanks to the unexpected contributions of players like linebacker Michael Wilhoite, defensive back Tramaine Brock and third-round pick Corey Lemonier.
Wilhoite, who replaced Willis, recorded 13 tackles against the Texans. In the same game, Brock picked off Texans quarterback Matt Schaub twice, returning his first interception for a touchdown. Lemonier, a rookie linebacker, broke loose against the Cardinals last week, picking up a sack and safety in the 49ers’ 32-20 win.
“The guys that have come in and replaced those guys have played well enough for us to keep playing the way we like to play,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said prior to Week 6.
NaVorro Bowman’s emergence as one of the top linebackers in the league also helped the defense to maintain ferocity through the string of injuries. Bowman is ranked ninth in the league in tackles (53), he’s forced two fumbles and he’s capable of picking up the tight end in pass coverage.
The defense should also benefit from the additions of cornerback Eric Wright and defensive linemen Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine, who all returned to practice this past week.
But the unit will need to fill another hole if it’s going to continue its dominance in Tennessee this week. Backup nose tackle Glenn Dorsey, who’s stepped in for Williams, left last week’s game with a hamstring strain and the Cardinals picked up 5.2 yards per carry in his absence.
Third-stringer Tony Jerod-Eddie replaced Dorsey last Sunday, but Fangio could also turn to practice-squad nose tackle Mike Purcell, Dial or Carradine to plug the hole this week.
At this point, it would be a stretch to expect Dial or Carradine to play at Williams’ or Dorsey’s level after less than a week on the practice roster, so the Titans’ running game could present a challenge.
“Stamina is going to be an issue,” Fangio said, referring to Dial and Carradine. “Obviously, they can’t go out there and play 10 plays in a row or even eight.”
But if the team can get past the Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars in London on Oct. 27, they’ll receive time to heal with a bye week, which should set the defense up for a stingy second half of the season.