Linebackers: The unit has performed well all season, but took its play to the next level last week against Cincinnati while playing a huge role in the shutdown of the Bengals' offense, which was limited to 152 total yards and a gift field goal over the final 54 minutes of play. Inside backers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis plugged gaps and aggressively pursued the football while combining for 19 tackles, continuing to make a statement as one of the NFL's top inside tandems. They set the tempo for a defense that limited Cincinnati to 79 rushing yards and hit Bengals lead back Cedric Benson hard. The linebackers on the edges in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme also are making their presence felt, and Ahmad Brooks was a force last week against his former teammates with four tackles, a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and a ferocious sack of quarterback Andy Dalton. Brooks was a one-man wrecking crew after the Bengals had reached first-and-goal at the San Francisco 6-yard line on the game's opening possession, getting in on each of the next three plays to force the Bengals to settle for a field goal. The Bengals would threaten to score again only after recovering a fumble at the San Francisco 16 late in the fourth quarter. The starting unit of Bowman, Willis, Brooks and Parys Haralson has combined for 69 tackles, three sacks and three forced fumbles through three games and continues to make weekly progress as a group that can be counted upon.
CB Carlos Rogers: Rogers was part of a coverage breakdown against Dallas that allowed a 77-yard reception in overtime to set up the winning field goal, but he has been consistently stellar this season outside of that glitch, and he had his best game so far as a Niner last week against Cincinnati. Rogers recorded four tackles and had a big game in coverage, knocking down two Dalton passes and coming up with a huge interception of Dalton on the first play after San Francisco had taken its first lead of the game with 3:59 play. Rogers displayed his reputable coverage skills by reading an out route and cutting underneath receiver Andre Caldwell before looking back for the football, which arrived with Rogers looking like the intended target. Rogers clearly is establishing himself as the No. 1 cornerback the 49ers expected him to be when they signed him as a free agent in August and immediately made him the starter at left cornerback.
LB NaVorro Bowman: The second-year veteran's name is getting some national play when analysts begin talking and writing about the 49ers and their defense, of which Bowman is the team's runaway leading tackler. Bowman is quickly emerging from the formidable shadow cast by his All-Pro partner in the middle, Patrick Willis, and is developing into a play-making run stopper in the trenches. After his 11-tackle game against Cincinnati, Bowman ranks fourth in the NFL with 30 tackles and second with 24 solo stops.
Offensive line: What was once a primary concern is now a full-brown problem after the line's collective flop performance against the Bengals. The unit was out-played to a man against Cincinnati, which is no embarrassment considering the Bengals' strong defensive front. The embarrassing part came with a succession of penalties, including four false starts, five sacks allowed and the way left tackle Joe Staley, center Jonathan Goodwin and right guard Chilo Rachal each were manhandled in individual matchups. The line once again failed in pass protection, allowing quarterback Alex Smith to be hit eight times along with the five sacks for 25 yards in losses. The unit also failed to get push or provide openings in the running game, which averaged just 1.7 yards a carry, and that has been the case in every game this season. It was magnified even more in the overall sorry performance against the Bengals that saw this unit continuing a downward spiral.
RB Frank Gore: Gore was limited during the second half by a sprained ankle he tweaked late in the second quarter against the Bengals. But even taking that injury into consideration, it appears that something is missing from the two-time Pro Bowler's game after another subpar effort saw Gore finish with a season-low 42 yards rushing on 17 carries, matching his 2.5 season average. Gore had an uncharacteristic fumble deep in San Francisco territory that could have cost the 49ers the game, and coaches put their confidence in the hands of rookie Kendall Hunter, Gore's backup, with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter. After showing more explosiveness than Gore, and scoring the game-winning touchdown on a 7-yard run, Hunter is likely to start getting more of the backfield touches that belonged almost exclusively to Gore through the first 2¾ games of the season.
RG Chilo Rachal: One of the most enigmatic and inconsistent of San Francisco's young offensive linemen, Rachal had a strong summer that put him in good graces with the coaching staff and solidified his spot in the starting lineup. That spot is hardly so solid now after Rachal's meltdown at Cincinnati, his second shaky performance in as many weeks. Rachal allowed a sack, was pushed aside on a running play that lost three yards, was flagged for a false start and also called for two holding penalties – and that was all in the first half against the Bengals. Rachal didn't see much playing time in the second half, because by then he had been replaced at right guard by Adam Snyder, an arrangement that could continue moving forward unless Rachal can quickly get his act together.