The San Francisco 49ers, especially their defense, will limp into Sports Authority Field at Mile High this week to take on the Denver Broncos. Both teams are in second place in their respective divisions, so losing is not an option.
The Niners have been without star inside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman, all season long, as he works back from his late-season knee injury. His partner in crime, Patrick Willis, injured his toe last week and is doubful for week 7. This duo, arguably the best inside linebacker duo in football, is not easily replaced. Troubled outside linebacker, Aldon Smith, will miss this game too, as he continues to serve out his 9-game suspension.
In part II of our questions with the enemy, we sat down with Niners Digest's, Chris Biderman, to get the inside scoop on the Niners defense and what Broncos Country can expect from them this week. You can find part I of this series here.
MileHighHuddle: With his dark history in Denver, some question whether Perrish Cox should even be playing in today's NFL. But by most accounts, he's having a remarkable season for the Niners. Do you feel that he belongs in the NFL and if so, how has he improved the secondary?
Biderman: Without editorializing too much, I’m a believer in second chances and due process. And although there were a number of disturbing details of Cox’s legal battle back in 2012, he was ultimately acquitted of those charges. He was out of football in 2011 and is a new and better person because of everything he has been through, he says, thanks largely to his newborn daughter.
On the field, Cox has been a pleasant surprise for the 49ers’ remade secondary. They lost starting corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers in the offseason, along with strong safety Donte Whitner. And in Week 1, they lost No. 1 corner Tramaine Brock to a toe injury. Cox has stepped in at that left cornerback spot, where he has played at an extremely high level. He’s tied for the league lead among cornerbacks with three interceptions, while allowing a 39.4 passer rating when targeted in coverage, per Pro Football Focus.
Cox was released early last season and brought back on a one-year deal for the league minimum in the offseason. He’s playing his way towards earning a long-term contract with the 49ers, who only have one starting corner locked up beyond this season in Brock. With rookie nickel corner Jimmie Ward unlikely to play Sunday, expect Cox to move to the slot, where he played very well in the playoffs last season.
MileHighHuddle: With Patrick Willis uncertain for Sunday Night Football and NaVorro Bowman out, how will the Niners deploy their defense against Manning and company?
Biderman: That’s the biggest question of the week. Without Willis and Bowman, the 49ers will have Michael Wilhoite and rookie Chris Borland starting at inside linebacker. The duo has combined to make eight starts, and all eight belong to Wilhoite. The Washburn alum played safety in college and came to the 49ers as an undrafted free agent largely because of his special teams contributions. But he’s added weight and evolved into a serviceable starting linebacker. He made two starts for Willis last year when he was dealing with a groin injury early in the season playing next to Bowman. This year, Wilhoite has switched positions from the “Mike" to the “Jack" with Bowman out.
That won’t change with Borland, who has worked almost exclusively at the “Mike” position since getting drafted in the third round in May out of Wisconsin. Some viewed Borland as a first-round talent before the combine, but he ran a 4.83 40-yard dash and was the shortest linebacker there (5’11”), and also had the shortest arms.
Despite his diminutive size and speed, he has great instincts and plays much faster than his 40-time would indicate. That being said, I expect the Broncos to find ways to isolate him in coverage, especially with Julius Thomas. The 49ers will ask their safeties to help out a lot in that area, which means the corners will have to hold up in one-on-one situations with those talented receivers. San Francisco will have its hands full with Denver’s offense.
I wrote a piece about Borland this week, which you can find here.
MileHighHuddle: Much has been made about the troubled but vastly talented Aldon Smith. How bad are the Niners missing him?
Biderman: The first five weeks they were missing him pretty badly. They managed just five sacks before the game in St. Louis, but doubled that total with five sacks of Rams QB Austin Davis Monday. Without being able to win many individual battles up front, they’ve started rushing the quarterback better as a unit, running different stunts and games to get to the quarterback.
In base situations, the 49ers will have Dan Skuta and Ahmad Brooks as their outside linebackers. In nickel, rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch moves to the strong side while Brooks moves over to Smith’s traditional spot rushing the quarterback’s blind side.
Lynch was viewed as a first-round talent as a freshman at Notre Dame but had a few personal issues that led to a transfer to South Florida. There, he lost a lot of weight due, in part, to a bout with Adderall. But his weight is back up and he’s thrived with the 49ers. And at 6’6” with long arms, he has a similar skill set to Smith, but is still a very raw player. He’s done well with his opportunity to this point, registering 10 quarterbacks hurries, second on the team, per PFF.
One of the stories of the season for San Francisco has been how well the defense has played despite being without so many key starters. The 49ers are missing Smith, Bowman, Willis, Brock and Glenn Dorsey, while fielding two new corners and a new safety in Antoine Bethea. Still, the defense enters Sunday No. 2 in the NFL in yardage, sixth in scoring, and No. 2 in passing yards allowed per game.
MileHighHuddle: Jimmie Ward was my top safety prospect in the 2014 draft. From what I've read, he's been moved to corner in San Francisco. How has he settled in with the Niners and has he impacted the team yet?
Biderman: Ward’s been playing the nickel corner spot exclusively while he figures to replace Bethea at some point down the road. Predictably, he got off to a rough start at the position many consider the hardest to learn in the secondary. Ward’s a confident player and willing to put in the work, which helped him get over allowing all three touchdowns to Bears’ talented wideout Brandon Marshall in Week 2’s loss to open Levi’s Stadium. He’s played well since that game.
Ward appears unlikely to play Sunday after suffering a quad injury in Monday’s win over the Rams. He hasn’t practiced this week, and the 49ers rarely play young players without a week of practice under their belts.
Brock returned to practice this week for the first time since injuring his toe in the first quarter of Week 1 and could play Sunday. That means Cox would likely play nickel in Ward’s spot. As I mentioned earlier, Cox played very well at nickel last year while Rogers was out with a hamstring injury. Cox is the team’s only corner that knows both the outside and inside nickel spot.