The San Francisco 49ers have confirmed that Michael Wilhoite will start at inside linebacker in place of NaVorro Bowman, and ahead of rookie Chris Borland. This news was surprising to nobody, as Borland has a lot to learn (though, as a skeptic, his performance in games two and three of the preseason turned me around on him) and Wilhoite, the veteran, performed very well in place of Patrick Willis last season.
Personally, I think it will be a little harder for Wilhoite to replace Bowman that it was Willis. Bowman moves around the field more and is a little more athletic than Willis in my opinion. Wilhoite started a couple games in place of Willis last season and played well, but again ... it was only a couple games. His biggest knock right now is that we have no idea how he'll hold up starting eight-plus games.
So how will Wilhoite perform against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday?
Well, for starters, he'll have his work cut out for him. Dallas may have a historically awful defense, but Tony Romo commands a deceptively strong offense with a strong running game and strong wide receivers. With Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar, there's a chance Wilhoite might get matched up against a very tough receiver.
Fortunately, he probably won't have to shadow Witten around, as that duty will likely fall on Willis. Wilhoite was notably burned by Antonio Gates in the third preseason game, but I don't think anybody expected him to be able to go 1-on-1 with Gates. No, if Wilhoite goes up against guys like Witten, he's doing it alongside someone else. Dallas will try and exploit him in the passing game, but I think the 49ers will do what they can do ensure they have enough defensive backs on the field.
As an aside, that could lead to the 49ers playing more snaps without two inside linebackers on the field, something of a rarity with them but against these receiving options, it might benefit them more to try and keep up the pass rush while bringing in another defensive back. But for the majority of the time, Wilhoite will be out there.
Then there's running back DeMarco Murray, who played well last season. Murray carried the ball 217 times for 1,121 yards and nine touchdowns. That's a per-carry average of 5.2 yards. Wilhoite will likely be called on for run support more than he will to cover receivers or tight ends. Murray is a hard back to bring down in any situation.
While we don't consider Wilhoite a liability, the Cowboys certainly will. And the reality is that yes, the drop-off from Bowman is significant, so the Cowboys aren't wrong in that assumption. You can bet they'll be attacking Wilhoite and they'll be attacking the combination of Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier. I expect Wilhoite will be up to the task in this game, though I am very interested to see how he holds up over more and more games.