Heading into Sunday’s game, it looks like four of the Eagles’ five earmarked positions along the offensive line will be occupied by backups.
That could be big news for the 49ers’ struggling pass rush that will need to be more effective against the Eagles high-octane offense than it has been in the first three games. San Francisco is in danger of falling to 1-3 and losing three straight for the first time under Jim Harbaugh.
First-team All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters, who was ejected after a fight in last week’s game against Washington, will be the only starter along Philadelphia’s front that will be playing his natural position. The Eagles lost athletic center Jason Kelce Sunday (sports hernia) and left guard Evan Mathis (knee) in the season opening win over the Jaguars.
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Presumed starting right tackle Lane Johnson will be out (four-game suspension for PEDs), forcing right guard Todd Herremans to kick outside, putting backup Dennis Kelly in the lineup. David Molk, a reclamation project after being out of football in 2013, will be starting at center. Matt Tobin is slated to start at left guard in place of Mathis.
Molk might have the most difficult shoes to fill replacing Kelce, who has emerged as one of the league’s best centers and a perfect fit for head coach Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense.
49ers nose tackle Ian Williams has history against Molk dating back to their college days, when Williams starred at Notre Dame and Molk played for Michigan. And they were able to resume the rivalry in the preseason when Molk played for the San Diego Chargers in 2012.
"I’m going to talk a little trash while we’re out there," Williams quipped.
But as far as preparing for Sunday, Williams said his previous experience against Molk won't do him much good. "He’s been used in a totally different way from the way he was at Michigan and in San Diego," Williams said. "...He’s going to go out there and fight."
To summarize, here’s the Eagles’ expected starting line coming into the season, from left to right. Their number of career starts will be in parenthesis:
Total starts: 477
And here’s the group that will likely start Sunday at Levi’s Stadium:
Total starts: 371 (354 between Peters and Herremans)
The patchwork unit might give the 49ers’ defense that’s struggled to get to the quarterback some respite for Sunday’s game. And it could factor in heavily toward Las Vegas’ decision to favor 1-2 San Francisco by five points over the 3-0 Eagles.
With just four sacks through three games, three coming from Justin Smith, San Francisco’s defense is on pace for 21 for the year. Under coordinator Vic Fangio over the last three seasons, the 49ers have sacked opposing quarterbacks 42 times in 2011 and 38 in each of the last two years.
That pace of 21 is just a sack and a half above Aldon Smith’s 2012 season when he managed 19.5. After Sunday Smith will have to miss five more games to complete his nine-game suspension. Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who was Pro Football Focus’ third-best pass rushing inside linebacker in 2013, is also a key piece of San Francisco’s lackluster pass defense that is missing.
The lack of pass rush has contributed heavily to the 49ers’ being the worst defense in the NFL on third down.
The insufficient pass rush could mean Fangio dials up more blitzes, as he did at a 35 percent clip in Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals. But it would go against his history. Fangio blitzed just 19.4 percent in 2013, well below the league average of 31 percent, according to Pro Football Focus.
After leading the league in rushing last year with a 156 yards per game, Philadelphia has relied far more heavily on the pass in 2014. Kelly’s offense has averaged 109 yards on the ground through three weeks, while quarterback Nick Foles leads the league in passing yards with 978.
Running back LeSean McCoy is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry, down from his 5.1 in 2013 when he amassed a league-leading 1,607 rushing yards.
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