After a 1-2 start to the season, a struggling quarterback and a difficult remaining schedule, things were looking rather bleak for the San Francisco 49ers. To make matters worse, their Pro Bowl linebacker and pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith was charged with a second DUI in as many years and subsequently checked himself into rehab.
This left the 49ers with a huge void on the defensive side of the ball after the team placed Smith on the reserve/non-football injury list. The men charged with filling the Pro Bowler's shoes were special teams ace Dan Skuta and rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier. The third-round pick out of Auburn was put to the test immediately against St. Louis Rams left tackle Jake Long, and Lemonier finished with three solo tackles, one pass defensed and one quarterback hit.
Skuta did not have a huge statistical game (one tackle recorded), but he and Lemonier were solid in replacement roles. To duplicate Smith's recent production is virtually impossible—he recorded 19.5 sacks in 2012 and 4.5 through three games in 2013.
The slack was picked up by other members of the 49ers defense.
NaVorro Bowman had a stellar game—he was absolutely everywhere Thursday night, as the Niners pulled off the 35-11 victory. He recorded six tackles (five solo), two sacks, three tackles for loss and one pass defensed. Bowman absolutely needed to have a huge night with Smith missing time and All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis sidelined with a groin injury.
Bowman was not the only linebacker who stepped up in the face of adversity. Ahmad Brooks recorded seven (five solo) along with 1.5 sacks and one pass defensed. Special teamer Michael Wilhoite had a respectable day in place of Willis with seven total tackles on the game.
The 49ers pass rush sacked Rams quarterback Sam Bradford a total of five times and totaled eight hits. Bradford began a rash of inaccurate passes due to the pressure applied by the 49ers. On the game, Bradford completed just 19 of 41 attempts for 202 yards, one touchdown and one interception for a passer rating of just 59.2.
The key to the 49ers' defensive dominance Thursday night was the balanced contribution from all players up front. Four different players were in on a sack and six different players recorded a hit on Bradford.
Willis may return as soon as next week. Aldon Smith, however, could be out for at least a month. During that time, the 49ers defense must continue to play as a unit as they did in their 24-point win over the Rams.
With upcoming games against quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Carson Palmer the next two weeks, the continued effectiveness of the pass rush will be necessary. Neither quarterback is very mobile, but they both have strong arms and can be deadly when given time to throw.
The 49ers now sit at 2-2 after the first quarter of the season. This team is still clearly a factor in the NFC playoff race going forward, and the pass rush could dictate just how far they will go in 2013.