AP PhotoAldon Smith’s nine-game suspension is a big blow to a 49ers defense already missing NaVorro Bowman.

AP PhotoAldon Smith’s nine-game suspension is a big blow to a 49ers defense already missing NaVorro Bowman.

Defense holds the key to Niners’ chances

The 49ers will be a much different team than they’ve been before under Jim Harbaugh, with the defense suffering some very bad hits. The offense should be better with more good receivers, but for 49ers fans who think that will make up for the weakened defense, take a look back to see what happened in the most recent Super Bowl, when the team with the best defense played the team with the best offense.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has had the advantage of a great defense, which held down even the best teams so, if he failed in the red zone (as he often did), the Niners could just kick a field goal and let the defense take over. That’s not going to happen this year with key injuries, such as the one to linebacker NaVorro Bowman and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey, the loss of cornerbacks to free agency and the nine-game suspension of their outstanding pass rusher Aldon Smith.

All this means that Kaepernick must finally mature into a steady quarterback instead of one who makes spectacular plays against inferior defenses but goes flat against good ones, often because of brain lock.

Can he do it? I remain skeptical but he will be 27 during the season so perhaps he’ll show some maturity to go with that. He had better because the Niners have little behind him — Blaine Gabbert, who has never looked like a competent NFL quarterback, and Josh Johnson, a backup in Cincinnati last year. Neither one has looked good in training camp, a better indication than the meaningless exhibitions.

The 49ers brought in receivers to training camp, including Brandon Lloyd, who was with them as a rookie, but the big news is that Michael Crabtree is healthy again. Crabtree came back early from an Achilles tendon tear last year, but he was not at his best. He’s apparently all the way back so Kaepernick will have three outstanding receivers — Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, the one deep threat of the three. The Niners have also cut back on their voluminous playbook, so we shouldn’t see those delay of game penalties.

The running back situation isn’t promising, with Frank Gore at 31, at least a year past the usual sell-by date for running backs, and Kendall Hunter sidelined by injury. Marcus Lattimore is still recovering from a knee injury suffered 22 months ago. Rookie Carlos Hyde is an unknown.

Even with those problems, the offense should score more often and, if Kaepernick can settle down with his red zone throws, be much more efficient.

But again, the defense is a real question mark. The injury to Dorsey robs them of their key player in the middle, with no good replacement in sight.

The other problem facing the Niners is the strengthening of their division, which is probably the strongest in the NFL. The conference champion, of course, is Seattle, which won the last Super Bowl so decisively. The Arizona Cardinals will battle the 49ers for the runner-up slot and may well win it.

Harbaugh has set an NFL record by making the conference championship game the first three years he’s coached in the league. That streak is in serious jeopardy.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at glenndickey36@gmail.com.Colin KaepernickGlenn DickeyJim HarbaughSan Francisco 49ers

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