It began in early August, Chris Culliver, the team's talented, young nickel cornerback goes down for the year with an ACL injury in camp. Around the same time, Patrick Willis sustains a broken hand; a groin strain later in the season would follow. Next, it was promising nose tackle Ian Williams with a season-ending injury in Week 2. Then, it was the Aldon Smith incident and resulting month-and-a-half leave of absence for treatment. Defensive end Ray McDonald has recently missed time with a high ankle sprain-a timetable for his return has yet to be defined. Tarell Brown suffered a pretty serious undisclosed rib injury in New Orleans and recently noted some internal damage-his return is also TBD. There have been some additional bumps along the way, such as Eric Reid's two concussions and Glenn Dorsey's hamstring strain.
Despite all of it, the 49ers are consistently playing at a high-level-in my opinion, the best they've played since 2011. The team ranks sixth in NFL total defense (which is measured by "total yards"); they're fourth against the pass and sixth against the rush. If you subscribe to the notion that total defense should be measured by "points allowed", the 49ers rank fourth in the league, averaging 16.7 points per game. Their 22 takeaways this season tie them for fifth in the league; a +6 giveaway/takeaway differential ranks them seventh in the NFL.
Beyond the stat sheet, the defense has answered the call on the field, giving the 49ers a prime opportunity to beat Carolina and New Orleans. Had the offense been able to do just a fraction better, the 49ers would only trail Seattle by one game in the division as opposed to fighting for a wild card, but I digress...let's get back to the defense.
Tramaine Brock has undoubtedly made the most of the team's injury woes. In the spring, he was sparring with Nnamdi Asomugha for the fourth cornerback spot. Since then, he's emerged as the team's biggest playmaker at cornerback, first as the team's nickel corner and now starting opposite Carlos Rogers while Tarell Brown is on the mend. Brock has made a name for himself with much-improved coverage skills and a nose for the ball. The result: a new four-year contract extension worth $16 million. Brock's performance has been a silver lining in the injuries to Culliver and Brown; the 49ers have responded by making sure he's a part of the future.
Tony Jerod-Eddie, an undrafted free agent and training camp "bubble" player, has also made the most of his chance. He's filled in admirably along the defensive line in Ray McDonald's stead, and earlier in the season while Glenn Dorsey dealt with a hamstring injury. He even nabbed his first career interception against the Texans back in October. Other players such as Dan Skuta and rookie Corey Lemonier have also made key contributions in their time on the field. Skuta ran back a touchdown in the 49ers rout of the Jaguars across the pond and Lemonier came up with a crucial sack for a safety in the team's win over Arizona.
The mounting casualty toll of this season has truly tested the mettle and depth of the 49ers defense, emphasizing the importance of stockpiling talent behind starters. It's a testament to general manager Trent Baalke, the coaching staff, and, of course, the players themselves. This kind of response is one of those scenarios that coaches always spew jargon about in interviews. We've all heard it a thousand times before: "It's an unfortunate situation for [enter player's name here], but when a player goes down, it's about the next man up." Tzhe coaches rarely exude a "doom-and-gloom" outlook on injury if they can contain it, even if that's the fact of the matter. Instead, they frame it more as an opportunity for another player than a detriment to the team.
In the case of the 2013 49ers, that old adage has actually come to fruition. Vic Fangio, Jim Tomsula, Jim Leavitt, Ed Donatell and the rest of the defensive coaching staff deserve a great deal of credit for keeping this squad united and being able to develop/prep players on the fly for the big stage. As was evidenced by the Singletary era, talent can only take you so far; superior coaching is part and parcel for true success and that's why this team is playing so well on that side of the ball.
It would have been understandable if the defense experienced a dip in performance in light of all the curveballs thrown their way. And while they haven't been perfect, they've been playing some outstanding football overall, consistently giving the offense a chance to win. Many an excuse has been made for the 49ers pedestrian passing offense (not to say they aren't valid) but the team's defense has made none, shouldering the burden, hopeful the passing game can return the favor as they welcome back some pretty notable players from injury. Combine that with Aldon Smith's return to form and the hope that Tarell Brown and Ray McDonald can soon return, and you understand why people are prognosticating a late-season surge from the San Francisco 49ers.
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