The San Francisco 49ers defense faced its share of skeptics to start the 2014 season. Analysts questioned a group that would be missing NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, and Glenn Dorsey, and feature significant turnover in the secondary. The 49ers were welcoming back Ian Williams, but there were plenty of questions thrown around.
The 49ers are now a quarter of the way through the 2014 regular season, and we are starting to find some answers. It has only been four games, so these might not be concrete answers, but they are at least giving us some ideas. This defense is actually still pretty solid. It will improve when Bowman, Smith and Dorsey return, but in the meantime, it is holding its own.
One area that raised some early questions was the run defense. The 49ers struggled at times in Week 1, giving up 118 yards on 22 carries to DeMarco Murray. The 49ers did hold a big lead, so this is not entirely shocking, but even with that big lead, the 49ers seemed to struggle at times with some of their fundamentals. I think Murray would have put up solid numbers no matter what given the lead and the 49ers willingness to let the Cowboys run the clock, but it was still a little bothersome.
However, in the three games since that opener, we've learned a lot about the 49ers run defense, and DeMarco Murray. Since Week 1, the 49ers have given up 21 yards on 12 carries to Matt Forte, 62 yards on 18 carries to Andre Ellington, and 17 yards on 10 carries to LeSean McCoy. In that same stretch, Murray has rushed for 167 yards, 100 yards, and 149 yards. On the season, he is averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and thoroughly dominating the league.
Although the 49ers defense had plenty of talent on hand in addition to Bowman, Smith, and Dorsey, there was an expectation of a sizable step back. The pass rush remains a huge question mark, but we are seeing enough compensation in other areas. Michael Wilhoite and Aaron Lynch are two replacements who have started to step up their game. And of course, we've seen Perrish Cox and Antoine Bethea, among others, step it up in the secondary.
The 49ers can welcome back Aldon Smith for Week 11, and we could potentially see NaVorro Bowman back on the field not too long after that. Glenn Dorsey is likely more of a December return, but in the meantime, Ian Williams has been thoroughly dominant in his return to the starting lineup. When Dorsey returns, Williams will likely remain the nose tackle, and Dorsey will become a utility player across the entire line. There is always the risk of other injuries, but if they can get Dorsey back while remaining in relatively good shape, the defensive front could be ridiculous as the season is coming to a close.
The 49ers defense has a long way to go before they are anywhere near where they want to be. However, for now, the short term future is bright. The current defensive lineup is handling its business and putting the 49ers in a position to win. With the short term replacements in place, that's really all we could ask for from them. And they have delivered in spades. Credit goes to the players, but credit also goes to a defensive coaching staff that might be doing their best job through four seasons.