Getting linebacker Patrick Willis back to 100 percent was critical to the 49ers defense.
If there has been one problem that has plagued the 2013 San Francisco 49ers, it has been injuries.
We all know the story. San Francisco has suffered a slew of injuries both before, and into, the season thus far. Incumbent wide receiver Michael Crabtree has been out since Organized Team Activities (OTAs). Fellow receiver Mario Manningham has been missing.
Every NFL team has to contend with injuries over the course of a regular season and San Francisco is no exception.
How much better off would the 49ers be had such injuries not occurred? That is hard to speculate, but it is safe to assume that the team would have been able to perform at a much higher level up to this point.
In spite of the tough attrition San Francisco has endured, there is plenty of good news on the horizon. The 49ers are getting many of these injured players back at—or near—full strength. That bodes well as the team embarks upon a stretch of four road games in a six-week span.
Linebacker Patrick Willis
There is no questioning the importance of the All-Pro linebacker to this franchise.
After missing two games with a groin injury, Willis made his presence known in Week 6 versus the Arizona Cardinals. Yet Willis was still not at 100 percent—a statement tweeted by Associated Press writer Antonio Gonzalez.
#49ers LB Patrick Willis on playing through groin injury: "I'd be lying if I said I felt A-plus out there."— Antonio Gonzalez (@agonzalezAP) October 17, 2013
Most 49er fans would take Willis at 75 percent given his importance on the field.
The good news for San Francisco is that Willis is fully practicing as reported by Larry Hartstein of CBS Sports.
As long as Willis is good to go against the Titans, the 49ers defense should be that much better off.
Linebacker Aldon Smith
In the wake of third-year linebacker Aldon Smith's recent legal issues, San Francisco is forced to consider how they can go about replacing the talented pass-rush specialist for the foreseeable future.
According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, that could be a long time. By Shefter's account, the 49ers are not planning on having Smith back on the field for the duration of the season.
With Aldon Smith in rehab and facing felony charges of possession of assault weapons, 49ers are not counting on him returning this year.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 13, 2013
On the other hand, CSN Bay Area 49ers insider Matt Maiocco feels differently and thinks Smith's return could take place within the year.
Regardless of the issue, Smith is out for a while at best. San Francisco continues to make do on the defensive front. Rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier is vying to fill Smith's shoes as best as he can.
With one sack, one forced fumble and one safety thus far, Lemonier is off to a good start.
The Defensive Line—Glenn Dorsey, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith
San Francisco's defensive line figures to be a critical component against Tennessee. With that in mind, all three missed practice on Wednesday and are currently listed as questionable heading into Week 7.
Glenn Dorsey, the perennial run-stuffing nose tackle who replaced Ian Williams earlier in the season, left San Francisco's Week 6 matchup against the Cardinals with a hamstring injury. As a result, Arizona's running game attacked the center of the 49ers' defensive line with good results.
If Dorsey is able to go, that should bode well for San Francisco's run defense. If he is not, expect Tennessee to try and exploit the weakness.
Fortunately, all signs point to Dorsey's injury not being as serious as initially thought.
Yet the 49ers are still taking precautions with the situation. Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee tweets defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's plans regarding Dorsey's availability and specifically who could fill the void if needed.
Did not practice: G Alex Boone (shoulder), DT Glenn Dorsey (hamstring), DT Ray McDonald (biceps), DT Justin Smith (shoulder)— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) October 16, 2013
Ray McDonald, who is dealing with a torn bicep, was able to play against Arizona and did not show signs of the injury having a significant effect.
As described on Niners Nation, McDonald plans on having the bicep tendon surgically repaired in the offseason.
Justin Smith continues to nurse a shoulder injury although it is hard to fathom him being off the field in Tennessee.
Still, there is a remote possibility that San Francisco's vaunted defensive line could lose some—or all—of its starters in Week 7. On the bright side, all three look as if their respective injuries are not as problematic as initially thought.
It is likely that the 49ers are giving these guys a chance to heal during the week's practice sessions.
If that is not the case, backups Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs could see some added playing time. Rookies Quinton Dial or Mike Purcell could be in the mix if activated.
Tight End Vernon Davis
When Davis was missing in Week 3 against the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco's offense had few options to work with through the air. With Anquan Boldin bottled up and Davis out, the passing game struggled.
That was not the case in Week 6 where Davis torched Arizona for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
It seems as if Davis has fully recovered from the hamstring injury that plagued him earlier this season.
No need to worry y'all. My leg is feeling great just need a little rest til kickoff according to the docs.— Vernon Davis (@VernonDavis85) September 18, 2013
That is great news for the 49ers offense heading forward. He certainly appeared healthy in Week 6 and there are no signs of him slowing down in Week 7.
Wide Receiver Mario Manningham
Fans already know the situation with San Francisco's receiving corps—there is Boldin and a plethora of other relatively ineffective receivers.
The 49ers desperately need another talented receiver to take the pressure off Boldin and give Kaepernick another aerial target. After missing the tail end of the 2012 season and six weeks of 2013, Manningham is nearing his return.
While the need for another receiver is apparent, San Francisco does not want to rush Manningham back onto the field in the wake of his knee injury.
As a result, the 49ers do not expect to have him back in Week 7.
Manningham described his recovery process and prospects for his return via Taylor Price of 49ers.com by saying, "I’m just doing what I’ve got to do to get back to 100 percent. I’m going to ease my way into it."
He stated that when he does return, he would be at 100 percent on Sunday. The only question is which Sunday that will be.
The potential No. 2 receiver for the 49ers will almost assuredly be inactive for Week 7. This means that San Francisco will have to continue to get by on the backs of the running game and the passing threats from both Boldin and Davis.
Fortunately for the 49ers, it appears as if there is the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel" here.
The Rookies—Cornellius Carradine and Quinton Dial
Neither Carradine nor Dial has been able to take the field in their rookie seasons.
Carradine's knee injury is much more serious than Dial's toe injury, which indicates that San Francisco is likely to see Dial on the roster sooner.
In fact, Dial's debut could possibly come in Week 7, as reported by Maiocco. The 49ers' thin depth along the defensive line warrants bringing someone up and it is feasible that Dial winds up being that guy.
Mike Purcell? Quinton Dial? Or both? The 49ers consider adding depth at nose tackle for Sunday vs. Titans. http://t.co/51YwS8FIa5— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) October 17, 2013
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio describes Dial's recovery process and practice debut by saying:
He practiced yesterday, got a bunch of reps in and did fine. I want to see where he’s at today. Sometimes the day after kind of tells you the story, too. So we’ll see where he’s at today and tomorrow. We don’t have to make any of those decisions until Saturday.
Vic Fangio said the approach this week is to see if Glenn Dorsey can play. If no, then Quinton Dial and/or Mike Purcell would be brought up.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) October 17, 2013
While Dial may be the more heralded rookie to break the roster, when it comes to who will be the first to see playing time, the edge probably goes to Purcell who has been able to fully practice with the team since rookie camp.
“Mike’s been able to go in there and battle in the trenches for us,” Fangio said. “He’s versatile. He’s experienced when you compare him to Quinton and Tank [Carradine]. So he’s ready to go, if needed.”
Either way, it is possible that we see one of the 49ers' rookies make their regular season debut in Week 7, even if it is only in a relief effort for the defensive line starters.
This is a good sign for a San Francisco defensive line that was clearly worn down at the end of the 2012 season. They need reinforcements and they will be getting them soon.
What is known is that the 49ers have not been firing on all cylinders thus far into the 2013 season. Injuries have been a principle reason behind this.
The bad news is that injuries have already had a season-long effect on San Francisco this year—look no further than Williams or cornerback Chris Culliver.
The good news, though, is that the 49ers are getting healthier by the day. It is even more promising considering San Francisco posted a 4-2 record during this injury-strewn stretch. Some teams cannot overcome that adversity.
The 49ers have.
Hopefully San Francisco can avoid further serious injuries for the rest of the season. If so, and if these injured players are able to make a full impact, the 49ers should be able to return to the expectations set forth at the beginning of the season.
To think of that possibility is music to 49er fans' ears.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.