With back-to-back division wins, the 49ers appear to be regaining their identity.
They’re running the ball, forcing turnovers and out-toughing opponents at the line of scrimmage. Jim Harbaugh style football.
But can they keep this up for another 10 weeks? Can they impose their will on the best teams in the league?
The defense overwhelmed the Arizona Cardinals throughout Sunday’s game, masking an alarming development on the line.
Over the years, Harbaugh has proven that he can win without depth at wide receiver. Now, he’s plugging holes at nose tackle, too.
Glenn Dorsey left Sunday’s game in the first quarter with a hamstring injury, forcing third-string nose tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie to play significant minutes.
Fortunately, the defense forced four turnovers and the 49ers won, overshadowing the 109 rushing yards and 5.2 yards per carry that the Cardinals picked up on the ground.
The 49ers lost starting nose tackle Ian Williams to a broken ankle in Week 2 and defensive end Ray McDonald is playing with a partially torn biceps, so the line was vulnerable prior to Dorsey’s exit.
At this point, it’s unclear whether Dorsey will suit up against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, however, hamstring injuries do tend to linger.
In addition to Jerod-Eddie, the 49ers could use practice-squad player Mike Purcell at nose tackle and they have a pair of rookies, second-round pick Tank Carradine and fifth-round pick Quinton Dial, on the non-football injury list, who will start practicing on the defensive line this week.
But the 49ers can’t rely on a pair of rookies who have yet to step on the practice field to jump in and fill the voids left by Williams and possibly Dorsey. They just need to keep the dam from breaking right now.
If need be, the 49ers can survive without Dorsey when they play the Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars over the next two weeks. After that, they’ll be blessed with a well-timed bye week and, if everything works out, you’d expect Dorsey to be back on the field no later than the team’s Nov. 10 bout with the Carolina Panthers at Candlestick Park.
But the injury does expose the defense’s fragility up front, a concern for a team that prides itself on playing smash-mouth football.
As much as anything, the 49ers can attribute their recent success to their run-stopping prowess. In 2011, the defense surrendered the fewest rushing yards per game (77.3) in the NFL and last year they ranked fourth in the league, giving up an average of 94.2 yards per contest.
Right now, the 49ers are ranked 19th against the run (112.8 yards per game). In their two losses, they surrendered a total of 356 rushing yards.
Even with a healthy Dorsey, the 49ers will need to shore up this part of their game to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
The 49ers can put makeup on a pig and get by when they play teams such as the St. Louis Rams, Cardinals and Jaguars, but to beat the Seattle Seahawks and to win playoff games, they’ll need to look in the mirror and remember who they really are.
A team that’s dominated by completely smothering the run.