49ers midseason grades: Despite trials, defense gets consistent marks

The San Francisco 49ers entered their bye week at exactly the midway point of the season. After eight games, the 6-2 Niners are where most expected them to be record wise although possibly not in the standings. They trail the 8-1 Seattle Seahawks by one and a half games in the NFC West. While there were some early trials, the 49ers have bounced back with a vengeance and are currently riding a five game winning streak in which they have outscored their opponents 174-61. Below, we take a look at how the defense and special teams have graded out so far in 2013.

Defensive line: B

Starting nose tackle Ian Williams was lost for the season in Week 2, and his backup, Glenn Dorsey, is battling a hamstring injury. Ray McDonald has been playing with a biceps issue and Justin Smith was listed as questionable on the injury report the past few weeks (although he has played). Considering all of that, the unit has played very well.

They are not the brick wall, run stopping group they once were but have held opponents under 100 yards rushing in four of eight games. For the season, however, they are allowing an average of 104.6 rushing yards-per-game mostly because the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts combined for 356 yards in Weeks 2 and 3. The average-per-game should continue to decline as the 49ers get healthier, but the defensive front must improve at getting pressure on the quarterback. The group has only combined for six sacks in the first half of the season. Look for the addition of Tank Carradine to allow Vic Fangio to substitute for McDonald and Smith a little more to keep the two fresh and also provide help on pass-rushing downs.

Inside linebackers: A

Navorro Bowman is having an All-Pro type season so far, giving San Francisco as consistent presence in the middle while his partner in crime, Patrick Willis, has battled injuries. Bowman may have had his best game as a pro in Week 4 against the St. Louis Rams as he recorded two sacks and forced a fumble. Willis, who missed two games with a groin injury, seems to be rounding into form and has looked like his All-Pro self the past couple of games. Backup Michael Wilhoite played well in his absence recording 20 tackles in the two games he started in place of Willis.

Outside linebackers: C+

It’s very hard to grade this unit given what has transpired with Aldon Smith. Smith started out the season with 4.5 sacks in his first three games before taking a mandatory leave of absence from the team to deal with alcohol issues. His absence created a huge void, but Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier have filled in admirably. While the two replacements have been good overall, the 49ers have struggled in the pass rushing department, and Lemonier is the only one of the two who has recorded a sack (he has one). Ahmad Brooks has been his usual, well-rounded self but he’s not the type of player who will consistently get to the quarterback. He has 3.5 sacks this season, which is consistent with his career output (13.5 combined in 2011-2012). Overall, the 49ers are tied for 25th in the league with only 17 sacks. While sacks are not everything, the outside linebackers still haven’t provided the kind of pressure they will need to when the team faces some of the more high-powered passing offenses in the NFL. Combine that with the Smith situation, and the grade for this group falls.

Secondary: B+

Most of the concern about the 49ers’ defense usually centered around their secondary and whether or not they could rebound after a terrible postseason in 2012. The defensive backs have shown up and taken a step forward through the first half of 2013, and a lot of that has to do to some new faces. Rookie Eric Reid has not only replaced Dashon Goldson, he may be an upgrade in coverage. He is tied for the team lead with three interceptions and has been a stabilizing force. Another boon to the unit was the insertion of Tramaine Brock who took over in nickel situations in Week 4. Playing in place of Nnamdi Asomugha, Brock has shown big play ability with three interceptions. Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown, and Carlos Rogers have all had good seasons to date, even if Rogers tends to give up plays from time to time. 

Special Teams: B

Phil Dawson is making 75 percent of his kicks (9-of-12) and Andy Lee has been outstanding, averaging 48.6 yards-per-punt. The kick coverage units have vastly improved from last season and are once again one of the better groups in the league at defending kickoff and punt returns.

Where the Niners have struggled is in the return game. Their primary returner, Kyle Williams, is only averaging 5.1 yards per punt return and 19.1 yards per kick return (both near the bottom of the league). He is often reluctant to even try to return punts, and leads the NFL with 20 fair catches. It’s very likely the 49ers may soon go in another direction this season, possibly giving LaMichael James a chance to return kicks.

 Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images 

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Al Sacco

Al Sacco is sports expert who knows football, baseball, basketball and hockey. He has spent his time as a sports journalist covering the San Francisco 49ers as a contributor to 49erswebzone.com and Ninerfans.com. He's been a guest on numerous podcasts and has had his work used on ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY.


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