Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

New 49ers linebacker Gerald Hodges wants to bring energy to San Francisco's defense

The 49ers defense has needed a spark plug. And it might be added to the lineup this week out of necessity.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - A knock on the 49ers' defense through its early-season struggles, particularly on the road, has been an overall lack of juice.

The defense that throttled the Vikings on opening night was flying around, energized to be back on the field with NaVorro Bowman, and wearing black uniforms the players said they really enjoy.

But away from Levi's Stadium, San Francisco's defense was far more reactive and on its heals. The culmination of those struggles came Nov. 22 against the Seattle Seahawks, when the 49ers allowed a franchise record 209 yards rushing to undrafted rookie running back Thomas Rawls in a 29-13 loss. The effort was flat and the home team took advantage.

Since that game, San Francisco's defense held quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Jay Cutler to their lowest passer ratings of their seasons, showing signs of progression under coordinator Eric Mangini.

The 49ers held the Cardinals, owners of the NFL's best offense averaging 32 points per game, to 19 points. And against the Bears, San Francisco scored a defensive touchdown on a first-half pick-six from Jimmie Ward, and held Chicago to 20 points despite the special teams allowing the Bears favorable field position for chunks of the six-point overtime win. The Bears also missed two second-half field goals that could have won the game.

With 2-10 Cleveland on the horizon, the 49ers will hope to continue their improved play likely having to make a significant change. Linebacker Michael Wilhoite, dealing with a high ankle sprain, said he's unlikely to play Sunday, which would thrust Gerald Hodges into the starting lineup.

Hodges played 65 snaps Sunday after Wilhoite left the game in the first quarter. He finished with six tackles, including one for a loss in Wilhoite's stead, who came into the game with a 28-game consecutive start streak intact.

But that streak is likely to end Sunday against the Browns, where the 49ers hope Hodges can bring the juice.

"He's a high energy guy," Mangini said Thursday. "It pops about two minutes after you meet him. It's sort of like, "Hey, nice to meet you,' and then the volume gets turned up. It's pretty intense."

San Francisco added Hodges Oct. 6 in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings involving center Nick Easton. Hodges, a Penn State alum, was a sophomore who converted from safety when his new running mate NaVorro Bowman was drafted by the 49ers in the third round in 2010.

With the Vikings, who selected Hodges in the fourth round two years later, he made 10 starts in 35 games, including this year's season opener in Levi's Stadium, which the 49ers won 20-3. The Vikings moved on from Hodges in order to clear the way for rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks, the team's most recent second-round pick from UCLA.

In warmups before games, it's easy to spot Hodges, who stands out among his linebacker brethren by jumping around and trying to raise the energy levels of his teammates.

"That’s just how I am. I take pride in that, because throughout the game, guys get tired," Hodges said. "When you bring that energy, that’s when you got guys able to feed off that. And not just on defense, but it goes all the way to special teams. And if they see that energy, then the offense does pick up the energy. Then the next thing you know, you got a team full of energy that can just out there and play complimentary football."

Hodges and Wilhoite are both former safeties who gained weight to play linebacker in the NFL. But Hodges is clearly the faster of the two, giving the defensive front a slightly different look.

Coming his ACL and MCL tears, Bowman isn't as fast as he used to be. But when he was, he was paired with Patrick Willis, comprising arguably the fastest inside linebacker duo in the NFL. Hodges is somewhat undersized at 236 pounds, but has speed reminiscent of those days when Willis and Bowman were patrolling sideline to sideline.

Hodges speed was particularly evident on a fourth-quarter run by Cardinals' rookie David Johnson two weeks ago from the 1-yard line. Johnson, who ran a 4.50 at last winter's combine, was stopped by Hodges for a two-yard loss, who used his speed to prevent him from getting the corner on the run outside.

"That’s the plan. That’s what I’m here to do," said Hodges, who looked more like a safety on that play. "I want to be able to play all downs and go out there and make some plays with Bow."

Wilhoite is in the final year of his contract after the team failed to come to an agreement on an extension in the offseason. The 49ers indicated they liked Hodges dating back to his draft, and he could be in line to replace Wilhoite in the starting lineup in 2016 if he's not brought back.

That uncertain contract status hasn't hampered what Mangini's seen from his group of linebackers, who worked well to incorporate Hodges after he was brought in.

"I give NaVorro and Mike Wilhoite a lot of credit. They embraced him," Mangini said. "They brought him into the team. Situations like that can sometimes be not as open as those two guys have been and Gerald has been open to them as well."

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. - A knock on the 49ers' defense through its early-season struggles, particularly on the road, has been an overall lack of juice.

The defense that throttled the Vikings on opening night was flying around, energized to be back on the field with NaVorro Bowman, and wearing black uniforms the players said they really enjoy.

But away from Levi's Stadium, San Francisco's defense was far more reactive and on its heals. The culmination of those struggles came Nov. 22 against the Seattle Seahawks, when the 49ers allowed a franchise record 209 yards rushing to undrafted rookie running back Thomas Rawls in a 29-13 loss. The effort was flat and the home team took advantage.

Since that game, San Francisco's defense held quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Jay Cutler to their lowest passer ratings of their seasons, showing signs of progression under coordinator Eric Mangini.

The 49ers held the Cardinals, owners of the NFL's best offense averaging 32 points per game, to 19 points. And against the Bears, San Francisco scored a defensive touchdown on a first-half pick-six from Jimmie Ward, and held Chicago to 20 points despite the special teams allowing the Bears favorable field position for chunks of the six-point overtime win. The Bears also missed two second-half field goals that could have won the game.

With 2-10 Cleveland on the horizon, the 49ers will hope to continue their improved play likely having to make a significant change. Linebacker Michael Wilhoite, dealing with a high ankle sprain, said he's unlikely to play Sunday, which would thrust Gerald Hodges into the starting lineup.

Hodges played 65 snaps Sunday after Wilhoite left the game in the first quarter. He finished with six tackles, including one for a loss in Wilhoite's stead, who came into the game with a 28-game consecutive start streak intact.

But that streak is likely to end Sunday against the Browns, where the 49ers hope Hodges can bring the juice.

\"He's a high energy guy,\" Mangini said Thursday. \"It pops about two minutes after you meet him. It's sort of like, \"Hey, nice to meet you,' and then the volume gets turned up. It's pretty intense.\"

San Francisco added Hodges Oct. 6 in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings involving center Nick Easton. Hodges, a Penn State alum, was a sophomore who converted from safety when his new running mate NaVorro Bowman was drafted by the 49ers in the third round in 2010.

With the Vikings, who selected Hodges in the fourth round two years later, he made 10 starts in 35 games, including this year's season opener in Levi's Stadium, which the 49ers won 20-3. The Vikings moved on from Hodges in order to clear the way for rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks, the team's most recent second-round pick from UCLA.

In warmups before games, it's easy to spot Hodges, who stands out among his linebacker brethren by jumping around and trying to raise the energy levels of his teammates.

\"That’s just how I am. I take pride in that, because throughout the game, guys get tired,\" Hodges said. \"When you bring that energy, that’s when you got guys able to feed off that. And not just on defense, but it goes all the way to special teams. And if they see that energy, then the offense does pick up the energy. Then the next thing you know, you got a team full of energy that can just out there and play complimentary football.\"

Hodges and Wilhoite are both former safeties who gained weight to play linebacker in the NFL. But Hodges is clearly the faster of the two, giving the defensive front a slightly different look.

Coming his ACL and MCL tears, Bowman isn't as fast as he used to be. But when he was, he was paired with Patrick Willis, comprising arguably the fastest inside linebacker duo in the NFL. Hodges is somewhat undersized at 236 pounds, but has speed reminiscent of those days when Willis and Bowman were patrolling sideline to sideline.

Hodges speed was particularly evident on a fourth-quarter run by Cardinals' rookie David Johnson two weeks ago from the 1-yard line. Johnson, who ran a 4.50 at last winter's combine, was stopped by Hodges for a two-yard loss, who used his speed to prevent him from getting the corner on the run outside.

\"That’s the plan. That’s what I’m here to do,\" said Hodges, who looked more like a safety on that play. \"I want to be able to play all downs and go out there and make some plays with Bow.\"

Wilhoite is in the final year of his contract after the team failed to come to an agreement on an extension in the offseason. The 49ers indicated they liked Hodges dating back to his draft, and he could be in line to replace Wilhoite in the starting lineup in 2016 if he's not brought back.

That uncertain contract status hasn't hampered what Mangini's seen from his group of linebackers, who worked well to incorporate Hodges after he was brought in.

\"I give NaVorro and Mike Wilhoite a lot of credit. They embraced him,\" Mangini said. \"They brought him into the team. Situations like that can sometimes be not as open as those two guys have been and Gerald has been open to them as well.\"

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