The 49ers have said it from the outset, and reinforced the notion Tuesday; NaVorro Bowman will not be rushed back to the field after sustaining his ACL and MCL injuries to his left knee in January's conference title game.
And the way the defense has played through five games, things aren't as dire as projected without former All-Pros Bowman and Aldon Smith.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is coaching a patchwork unit that is second in the NFL in total defense, thanks to its ability to stop the run and hold opposing quarterbacks to a 57.5 percent completion rate, the third-best mark in league.
Fangio went on KNBR 680 Tuesday morning, noting Bowman's return to the field is still a few weeks out.
“(Bowman's) doing well," Fangio said. "He’s had no roadblocks in his rehab. Everything’s gone smooth. He’s ahead of where he should be and looking ford to his return at some point.
“I think at some point, he’ll eventually play. Right now, it’s still later than sooner … He’s going to need a coupe weeks of practice to get his legs under him and feel comfortable playing on his leg.”
Bowman is on the physically unable to perform list and eligible to return to practice next week. However, that doesn't appear likely. The play of his backup, Michael Wilhoite, has been encouraging for the 49ers, and will allow the team to wait until Bowman is at full strength before making his comeback.
Once Bowman returns to practice, which can happen at any point between Oct. 14 and Nov. 24, San Francisco has a three-week window to add him to the 53-man roster.
Smith, meanwhile, won't be able to help the league's fifth-worst pass rush until the end of nine-game suspension, which makes him eligible to make his 2014 debut Nov. 16 against the New York Giants.
Smith has been allowed to be at the team facility during his suspension, which was reportedly a negotiated sticking point between the 49ers and the league. He has remained in good shape, according to Fangio, after being one of the best players on the field for the majority of training camp.
“He said ‘I’m the most fit guy in this building,’ he told me. He seems to be doing well along those lines and we’re looking forward to his return here down the line,” Fangio said.
The 49ers are sacking opponents at a 2.72 percent clip, 28th in the league, while none have come from Smith's replacements. Second-year linebacker Corey Lemonier got off to a poor start and went sack-less through the team's first three games before being surpassed by rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch on the depth chart, who is now the team's primary pass rusher on the left side of the defense in nickel situations.
"We’re expecting (Lynch) to keep improving," said Fangio. "He does play good in the games, and the good thing is the game isn’t too big for him. He doesn’t go out there and get nervous, like you think some rookies would. He’s a very young rookie, being only three years out of high school. He’s done well with his opportunities. And we’re hoping that he keeps improving and realizes his full potential.”
Ahmad Brooks, who is playing better by the week after a slow start, has moved to Smith's spot on the right side of the defense on passing downs.
E-mail Niners Digest: NinersDigest@gmail.com
Follow Editor in Chief Chris Biderman on Twitter.