If your only exposure to the 49ers’ defense was Sunday night against the Denver Broncos, you’re going to have a difficult time believing the tone of this bye-week recap.
On face value, the 49ers have been exceptional on defense through seven games – even with the disaster in Denver.
But when you factor into the equation how they have coped with the absences of top-level players during that time, it’s even more impressive.
The 49ers rank second in the NFL in total defense despite all of their issues.
The defense has kept them in every game – except their 42-17 blowout loss to the Broncos – and has scored more fourth-quarter touchdowns (one) than the 49ers’ starting offense.
MVP: Patrick Willis. There was a lot of competition for this one. Antoine Bethea was NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Philadelphia Eagles. He has stepped in and made people forget about Donte Whitner.
Justin Smith is back to his usual high level of play.
Cornerback Perrish Cox stepped in and was very good.
But Willis plays such a vital role in the run game and in coverage, and that makes him irreplaceable while NaVorro Bowman remains unavailable. It’s no surprise the 49ers’ worst game came when Willis was sidelined with a toe injury. .
Pleasant surprise: Perrish Cox. He had to fight for a roster spot. And when the season began, he was the team’s sixth defensive back. Now, it’s difficult to imagine him going back to the sideline – even when everybody is healthy. Cox leads the team with three interceptions.
Disappointment: Corey Lemonier. With Aldon Smith suspended to open the season, the 49ers turned to Lemonier to be the team’s pass-rush specialist. But Lemonier was unable to get any pressure on the quarterback in the first three games. The 49ers replaced him with rookie Aaron Lynch, who has performed well in that role.
Best play: Eric Reid return. Tony Romo’s play fake to DeMarcus Murray got Reid to react. But Reid reversed field and ran 10 yards down the field to get back into coverage to make an amazing interception on a pass intended for Dez Bryant.
Bethea flattened Dez Bryant with a hit. Reid got to his feet and zig-zagged 48 yards to the Dallas 2 yard line. The 49ers scored on the next play to highlight a 28-17 victory. It’s a win that looks more impressive every week as the Cowboys keep winning.
Worst play: Blown coverage. With the 49ers leading 14-13 late in the third quarter, the Arizona Cardinals had a third-and-6 situation. Quarterback Drew Stanton pump-faked, prompting Reid to jump an underneath route. Reid abandoned his responsibility in the deep middle of the field. Rookie receiver John Brown made the catch behind 49ers rookie nickel back Jimmie Ward, who was expecting help over the top. That touchdown gave the first-place Cardinals a lead they would never relinquish in a 23-14 victory in Week 3.
Outlook: Happy returns. Pass-rusher supreme Aldon Smith could see his suspension reduced by a couple games, which makes it possible he’ll be back on the field Nov. 2 against the St. Louis Rams.
The NFL has yet to make an announcement about Smith’s status. Willis said he does not expect to miss a significant time with a toe injury. Cornerback Tramaine Brock had a rough return against the Broncos, but he should get better and better. And Chris Culliver should be back after sitting out with a hamstring strain.
Additionally, the 49ers hope to see the return of Bowman at some point in the second half of the season. Theoretically, the 49ers’ defense should be even better down the stretch.