SB Nation is running a theme this week on the 32 NFL sites looking at what “they” got wrong about our team. The “they” could speak to a variety of people, but for our purposes I think “they” can cover national media in general. I say in general because obviously opinions vary on a variety of topics.
One area where we heard some strong opinions this offseason was the San Francisco 49ers lack of talent. The 49ers were mentioned regularly as a contender for the top pick in the draft. Whether it be draft discussion, power rankings, or just general conversation, all we’ve heard is how little talent the 49ers have.
This take of poor talent is not applicable to the defensive side of the ball. Sure, there are question marks, and the defense could always use more depth, but through two weeks, it is clear this defense has some serious talent. The unit is dealing with some tough injuries, with Reuben Foster and Eric Reid out, but thus far, “next man up” has done a good job.
What I really wonder is just how good this 49ers defense could be when Foster and Reid both get back. Injuries will continue to happen, but if we see Reid and Foster back with most of the rest of this current starting lineup, we could be looking at a particular fearsome defense.
The biggest difference with Foster out is that NaVorro Bowman plays more of the dime work. The 49ers had been playing Foster as the main linebacker in their sub-packages. He is arguably already the best athlete on the defense, and it shows in both his run and pass defense. Bowman can still make plays, but the effects of two major leg injuries are showing. I thought he did some solid work against the Seahawks, but there are definitely times it feels like he’s lost a step. I’d love to see 2012 or 2013 NaVorro Bowman out there, but age and injuries are going to slow anybody down. It’s just the way life goes.
Once the 49ers get Foster back, that allows them to get Bowman more rest, and suddenly Ray Ray Armstrong goes back to being a part time player rather than a starter. Armstrong can do some good things, but the 49ers are much better with Foster and Bowman out there rather than Bowman and Armstrong. It improves the unit, while giving it that much more depth.
Thursday night will be a big test with Jimmie Ward back at free safety, and Jaquiski Tartt likely playing strong safety in spite of his neck injury. Tartt is off to a strong start, but again, getting Reid back out there means we can see more rotation with Tartt coming in for some of the 49ers sub-packages. It’s too early to say Ward will be the clear answer at free safety, but if he can build on last week’s limited performance, the 49ers secondary suddenly looks that much better.
This group is still learning to gel, and there will be hiccups along the way. But the notion that the 49ers are a lot of talent away from contending is simply not true on the defensive side of the ball.