San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Kwon Alexander will miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle, the team confirmed on Friday afternoon.
The loss of Alexander — signed to a four-year, $54-million deal this offseason — is a major blow to the 49ers’ pass rush, which, through the midway point in the season, has become arguably the best in the league.
Before the announcement, head coach Kyle Shanahan addressed the media in a conference call on Friday morning, with both Alexander and tight end George Kittle — who suffered knee and ankle injuries while being hit with a helmet, but still returned to the game, but sat out the final few drives — getting MRIs. Shanahan was optimistic about Kittle, but not about Alexander.
“Kwon’s been great for us this year on the field and as a leader,” Shanahan said Friday morning. “I’m a lot more nervous about the MRI coming back today … He’s been a great addition for us. It’s going to be a tough loss. Hopefully it’s not for the whole season, but if it is, we’ll deal with it. I’m really hoping it’s not.”
On Twitter, Alexander’s teammates reacted with sadness and disappointment. Cornerback Richard Sherman said, “Heartbroken for my brother @kwon ….. this game put you through it man.” Defensive end Arik Armstead added: “We gone hold it down for you bro. Going to take all of us to match the energy you bring us.”
Alexander had 22 solo stops (34 total) on the season, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit, one interception and four passes defended. His versatility to play both in coverage and as a pass rusher was one of the strong points of San Francisco’s defense, which ranks second in the NFL in yards per game allowed, and third in the league in third-down defense.
Over the course of the first eight games, Alexander — who had missed much of last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers due to an ACL injury — has become an on-field leader at the WILL (weakside) linebacker spot, and an emotional touchstone for the defense off the field.
“What he has brought to this defense is incredible,” Sherman said last week.
“I think everyone watching it can feel it, and our team feels it,” Shanahan said of the energy Alexander brought to the team. “That’s how he is on game day, that’s how he is on the practice field. The speed he plays with, he’s been a great addition for us. It’s going to be a tough loss.”
With Alexander out, San Francisco will turn the WILL over to rookie Dre Greenlaw, who stepped in against the Cardinals and tallied three tackles and his first career sack. Pro Bowl special teamer Mark Nzeocha will likely shift into Greenlaw’s SAM spot, with under-the-radar solid performer Azeez Al-Shaair adding depth. Shanahan added that practice squad linebacker Elijah Lee could also get promoted.
Shanahan was much brighter outlook about Kittle — and for good reason. A tough, quick healer, Kittle took a helmet to the knee and ankle by Chandler Jones in the first quarter Thursday, but returned two drives later and finished with six catches on eight targets for 79 yards and his second touchdown of the season.
“I know it was scary, but the fact that [the training staff] felt good enough with him coming back in the game, just talking to everyone last night, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about Kittle,” Shanahan said. “I know he played through a lot of stuff. It’s going to be tough on him this week, but I feel pretty good that it’s not going to be a longer-term thing and hopefully we’ll be able to get him back this week.”