The San Francisco 49ers approached the 2014 season with a strong start defense, but some questions marks at a few positions. However, as the team made its way through the preseason and into the season, players started dropping like flies. Aldon Smith ended up with a suspension longer than many of us anticipated. Tramaine Brock suffered a turf toe injury in Week 1. Patrick Willis aggravated his own toe injury in Week 9. Ian Williams fractured his fibula in Week 10.
The injuries and suspension led to numerous reserves getting extended playing time. Aaron Lynch and Dan Skuta moved into a starting lineup combo role in Week 1. Chris Borland moved into the starting lineup in the middle of Week 9. Dontae Johnson moved into a significant role in Week 1, backed off a bit after that, and is now back into the lineup as the nickel back. And Quinton Dial has slowly worked his way into the starting lineup since Week 10.
The 49ers have been able to roll out rookies, even as they start to welcome back players. The good news is that while the rookies have made significant contributions, none of them was forced into an every down starting role from Week 1. Vic Fangio was asked if he had concerns about the players hitting the proverbial rookie wall:
"No, and I don't think the rookie wall applies to these guys because most of the guys that you're talking about haven't played the whole season. They've come in here recently. [LB Chris] Borland, this is only what, his fourth or fifth start coming up. [CB] Dontae Johnson hadn't played much football really. Aaron, same thing. I think he's played 300 snaps. So, they haven't been in there every play every game. So, I don't think there's anything there."
As the 49ers rookies continue figuring out their way, the 49ers are welcoming back fresh veteran talent as well. Aldon Smith returned in Week 11, and the team is hoping to have Glenn Dorsey back in the next two or three weeks. NaVorro Bowman is obviously a guy we would like to see on the field, but it is easier to assume he won't be back this year, and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.
After Sunday's game, Aldon Smith was asked about being fresh, and not having as many issues as some players have at this point in the season. It's a basic fact that he does not have as many hits on his body as most players. He likely has a little extra spring in his step, and a little more strength that he can use to his advantage.
Additionally, the 49ers have been able to find ways to get Justin Smith fewer snaps this season than in years past. The potential return of Glenn Dorsey would only add to that. If Quinton Dial can continue to develop at the nose tackle role, Dorsey will potentially be available as a reserve alongside Tony Jerod-Eddie at all the defensive line positions.
All together, it bodes well for the 49ers defense as it heads down the home stretch of the season. The offense is struggling for consistency, which means the defense is left to do a lot of the heavy lifting. That can certainly be exhausting within the game itself, but over the course of the final month of the season, this defense will hopefully have enough fresh legs, or at least relatively fresh legs, to put them in a position for a strong finish.