Coming into the season, the expectations weren’t very high for the 49ers defense that would be missing two All-Pros in its linebacking corps and fielding a re-made secondary.
But through five weeks, having gone against some high-powered offenses, coordinator Vic Fangio has patched together the league’s second-ranked defense, allowing 283 yards per game.
Jim Harbaugh’s team, which has finished no worse than third in points allowed in his first three seasons with San Francisco, still has Patrick Willis playing at a high level and on pace for his eighth straight Pro-Bowl season. For Harbaugh, that's where it all starts.
”(Willis) is the kingpin in the middle,” Harbaugh said. “I felt like he had a lot to prove coming into this year. And, maybe some talk about NaVorro [Bowman] last year and that they are both playing together and they both played great football. And here he is again…I think he really relishes that.”
By many accounts, Bowman had a better season than Willis in 2013, when he became a leading candidate for defensive player of the year before falling just short to Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. In a broad sense, Bowman was responsible for some of the season’s most splashy plays, including his 89-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal Week 16’s Candlestick-closing win over the Falcons.
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Willis was Steady Eddie, finishing second on the team with 82 tackles, while Bowman received the bulk of the attention for his 118. Now, Willis is back to the forefront while Bowman rehabs his ACL and MCL tears suffered in January’s NFC title game loss in Seattle.
”I think it’s really motivating him to show that he is still the kingpin, and he is,” Harbaugh said.
Bowman’s rehab has intensified. He is now in the conditioning phase - which means sprinting and intense weight lifting sessions. Bowman began the season on the physically unable to perform list and eligible to join the 53-man roster following Monday’s game against the St. Louis Rams. But it’s likely the team waits until after the bye week, coming in Week 8, before making his comeback a possibility.
And because the 49ers defense has played so well in his absence, there is less urgency to bring back the three-time All-Pro before he is ready.
”Michael Wilhoite’s had that opportunity,” Harbaugh said.” He’s seized it and he’s doing a heck-of-a fine job. Couldn’t be more excited for him.”
Wilhoite is fourth on the team in tackles playing in Bowman’s place. But he’s not the only fill-in playing at a high level. Perrish Cox, who has taken over at left cornerback in the place of injured Tramaine Brock (toe), is Pro Football Focus’ sixth-rated corner entering Monday night’s game.
Just about every new face on San Francisco’s defense has played well. From nose tackle Ian Williams replacing injured Glenn Dorsey, to free-agent safety Antoine Bethea taking over for the departed Donte Whitner, to rookie Aaron Lynch making his presence felt at outside linebacker while Aldon Smith has four games remaining on his suspension.
”We don’t really pay attention to the stats much,” second-year safety Eric said of being the league’s No. 2 defense. “I think we’re more concerned with having a good defensive game from a week-to-week basis. We felt like the first week against Dallas we didn’t play well against the run, so we tried to improve that, which we did the second week against Chicago.”
After allowing 127 rushing yards to Dallas in the opener, including 118 to DeMarco Murray, the 49ers came back in Week 2 to yield 46 to the Bears. And against last year’s top rushing team, San Francisco allowed just 22 yards in their 26-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Thanks to strong play from the defensive linemen Williams, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, the 49ers are allowing just 73.8 yards per game on the ground.
"Justin Smith, he’s playing stronger than ever and better football than ever," Harbaugh said. Smith is healthy this year after playing with an injured left shoulder in 2013.
The 49ers will face a Rams team Monday night in St. Louis playing its third-string quarterback Austin Davis, who has orchestrated the league’s sixth-best passing attack. Davis has played so well to this point, averaging 282.3 yards per game with a 96.8 passer rating, it’s made Harbaugh second guess his talent evaluation in 2012, when Davis wasn’t even on his radar leading into the draft.
“I wish I would’ve been more aware of him. He looks like a real nice prospect,” Harbaugh said.
Davis is completing 67.8 percent of his passes, just below the league-leader, Philip Rivers (69.3). And he’s hitting his players deep, completing 50 percent of his throws that travel 20 yards on longer down field, according to PFF.
”He’s got a knack of throwing the ball in traffic. He can have guys hanging on him, around him, and he’s able to get the ball out at the last second,” said Harbaugh. “Playing with no conscious about throwing the ball down the field and deep, so we’re going to have to do a good job defending the deep ball. He’s got receivers that are nice, big catch radius. A group of guys that are really good.”
With the Seahawks falling to 3-2 after Sunday's 30-23 loss to the Cowboys, a win puts the 49ers ahead of Seattle in the NFC West standings. Arizona (4-1) remains in first place after its 30-20 victory over Washington.
San Francisco has won four of their six games against the Rams since Harbaugh became coach in 2011, including a tie in 2012 where Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith when Smith left the game with a concussion. Kaepernick has made every start since.
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