EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Aldon Smith returned to action for the 49ers.
And while the premier pass-rushing presence made a difference on Sunday in the 49ers’ 16-10 victory over the New York Giants, this game was about a lot of other people, too.
The 49ers’ defense, which has been decimated by injuries, continues to give the team hope of a playoff run.
“It was a spectacular performance by our defense today,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “So many guys stepped up and played great, living in the moment, competing like the dickens and making tremendous athletic, football plays.”
The Giants drove 63 yards in 2 minutes, 10 seconds for a touchdown on their first possession of the game. After that, the 49ers’ defense ruled the day. The 49ers intercepted Eli Manning five times and held firm on a crucial first-and-goal situation from the 4-yard line with five minutes remaining.
Manning threw incomplete passes on the first three downs, failing against the pass coverage of Perrish Cox, Culliver and Reid. On fourth down, Johnson broke up the pass intended for Preston Parker, and Borland made the sprawling interception.
“They’re playing together, and guys are stepping up at different times,” said 49ers defensive backs coach Ed Donatell.
Manning completed just 22 of 45 pass attempts for 280 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions. He was sacked twice, under constant pressure throughout, and had a lowly passer rating of 36.6.
“It was a great group effort,” Bethea said. “The line got pressure on him. When the opportunity was coming, we capitalized on them.”
The 49ers have required different guys to step with injuries at every level of their defense. Quinton Dial started in place of nose tackle Ian Williams, who is expected to be out for the season with a fractured leg. Borland and Michael Wilhoite, who added an interception, are starting for All-Pros Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. And Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward were out, leaving Perrish Cox and Johnson to compensate. Willis and Ward were placed on season-ending injured reserve.
“I’m not amazed because we go against these guys in camp,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said. “The young guys are stepping up. Coach challenges the young guys every week, and they’re stepping up to the plate and playing great ball.”
Aldon Smith made an impact in his first game back. Ahmad Brooks started but was benched in the second quarter. Aaron Lynch and Smith teamed up to play the outside linebacker spots for most of the remainder of the game. Corey Lemonier rotated into the action in on occasion to give Smith a breather.
“It’s just like anything,” Smith said. “At first, you’re not going to be as good or maybe not where you left off. But as the game goes on, it gets better and better.”
Smith did not get credit for a sack, but he managed to get pressure on Manning. On the Giants’ final drive, Smith appeared to have a sack but Manning tossed the ball wildly down the field to avoid the loss of yardage.
Said 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith, “Any time you have a guy like out there, you got to account for him. He’s going to change up the way teams protect. It’s kind of like having that No. 1 wide receiver, teams are going to roll coverage to him.”
It was the first time Bethea has played with Aldon Smith during the regular season, and he said the impact was noticeable.
“It was big having nine-nine out there on the edge and just knowing what type of pressure he can get on the quarterback,” Bethea said. “As a DB, that is what you want, being able to look at the quarterback and get some good jumps on the ball.”
Bethea had a huge pass breakup to force the Giants to settle for a field goal in the third quarter. He also teamed with McDonald for a stop of running back Rashad Jennings on a fourth-and-1 situation late in the third quarter. McDonald was a force in the run game with seven tackles. He also recorded his first sack of the season.
Borland had another monster game for the 49ers. He followed up games in which he recorded 18 tackles against St. Louis and 17 against New Orleans with a 12-tackle performance against the Giants.
Borland also intercepted two passes and made a tackle on special teams with a minute remaining in the game to pin the Giants at their own 15-yard line.
“The guy is playing out of his mind,” Justin Smith said. “He’s only played three or four games, but he’s got to be in the talk for Defensive Rookie of the Year, I’d think.”
Said Kaepernick, “Our defense hasn’t missed a beat with him in there. He’s made a lot of plays and he’s someone I think since training camp and OTAs everyone was excited to see what he could do when he got the chance. I mean, he’s taking full advantage of it.”