San Francisco 49ers: Corey Lemonier

Examining the San Francisco 49ers' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

Because of heavy competition elsewhere, the 49ers will likely only carry two quarterbacks. They finished last season that way. The competition will be to see if undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner can take McLeod Bethel-Thompson's spot on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

The fact that the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round and Lattimore is healthy means some tough decisions will have to be made. Hunter is too valuable to let go. That means 2012 second-round pick LaMichael James will have difficulty making the roster.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

The 49ers are so much deeper here this year than last. That means they will likely have to keep six receivers. Lloyd may look good and Patton has too much potential to give up on. That means it could be tough for Kassim Osgood to make it even though he is a special teams cog.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

If Davis ends his holdout, I can't see the 49ers keeping more than three tight ends because of the glut at receiver. Unless Garrett Celek has a big camp, he may be in trouble. Carrier intrigues the 49ers because of his size and speed.

OFFENSIVE LINE (8)

Assuming Boone ends his holdout, this is a pretty nice group of eight players. It's improved from last year. A solid veteran like Adam Snyder and a promising youngster like Ryan Seymour will have trouble making the team.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

This is another power spot. It's deep. Players like Jerod-Eddie and Dial are too valuable to cut. Ramsey has looked good and I have a hunch the 49ers may like him too much to expose him to the waiver wire. That means Demarcus Dobbs could be in trouble.

LINEBACKERS (7)

Most teams carry six linebackers but the 49ers are stacked here, especially with NaVorro Bowman out for about half the season. Because fifth-round pick Lynch is promising he should make the roster. Dan Skuta is an excellent player, but there might not be any room for him. I could see him being one of those later-summer Trent Baalke trade specials because he has value.

CORNERBACKS (5)

This unit is in flux, but I see Johnson making it. Don't be surprised if there is some in-camp jockeying as the 49ers look for the best mix.

SAFETIES (5)

Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick, will play nickel cornerback as a rookie, but projects long term as a safety. Ventrone and Spillman should stick because they are great on special teams. Craig Dahl could be in trouble.

SPECIALISTS (3):

This group is set and it's excellent.
The San Francisco 49ers will have their mandatory minicamp from Tuesday-Thursday. Here’s some things to watch for:

Davis
Boone
Will Davis and Boone show? Both tight end Vernon Davis and guard Alex Boone have stayed away from the voluntary portion of the offseason. That’s over. Starting Tuesday, everything the 49ers do as a team is mandatory and each player can be fined if they aren’t present. Davis said he expects to be at the minicamp. Boone has not said a word publicly about his plans. However, I’ve gotten the sense Boone is prepared not to show up until he gets a new deal. If neither player is at practice Tuesday, they will be holdouts and the stakes will change with their absences.

The cornerbacks: This is the biggest position of change. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are gone. Chris Culliver will start, but he is still working back from a torn ACL that kept him out all of last season. He should be fine for camp, but don’t expect him to go full-go in this camp. First-round pick Jimmie Ward is set to be the nickelback, but he is coming off a foot injury. He should be ready for training camp. A player of note in the minicamp is free-agent pickup Chris Cook. He will be in the rotation. Cook, who signed from Minnesota, has ideal size. He has looked good in the OTA sessions.

Offensive line: This unit, the pride and joy of the 49ers, should be fine in the long run, but it’s a little rough right now. Boone has been absent. Right tackle Anthony Davis is recovering from a shoulder injury and won’t be there until camp. Daniel Kilgore is taking over from Jonathan Goodwin and trying to hold off rookie Marcus Martin at center. Again, things will settle down, but don’t expect a well-oiled unit this week.

Passing game: Most of the receivers have been out during the voluntary sessions, mostly as precautions or for minor injuries. The passing game was rough in the OTA session that was open to the media last Tuesday. I’d expect to see more receivers during this camp, which is vital to help rhythm with quarterback Colin Kaepernick heading into training camp.

Inside linebackers: NaVorro Bowman is expected to be out until midseason as he recovers from a torn ACL. Michael Wilhoite has the inside shot to start for Bowman, but he will have to hold off Nick Moody and third-round pick Chris Borland.

Pass-rushers: Aldon Smith may face an NFL suspension. The 49ers need some extra pass-rush help. Keys to watch in camp is defensive lineman Tank Carradine, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and second-year player Corey Lemonier, who looks like he’s added several pounds of muscle. The 49ers would love to see these two young players show a burst in this camp.

Marcus Lattimore: The 49ers are slowly bringing along the 2013 fourth-round draft pick. He has done some things in the OTA session, including showing nice hands out of the backfield. I wouldn’t expect Lattimore to go full-go in this camp, but the 49ers want to see continued comfort, speed and confidence from Lattimore, whom they hope can help this season.

49ers rankings: 36-40

February, 7, 2014
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We are taking a look at the top 60 players in the San Francisco 49ers’ program and will rank them from 1-60. We are going to take a look in a 12-part series, moving upward. The ranking considerations are based on 2013 production, future projections, age, and contract status:

36. Running back/returner LaMichael James: The 2012 second-round pick still hasn’t made a huge impact as a running back, but he hasn’t gotten much of a chance, either. However, he proved to be a solid kick and punt returner in the second half of the season. He has ability.

37. Linebacker Corey Lemonier: The rookie linebacker has a nice future. He should get more opportunities next season. He is a player to watch.

38. Linebacker Dan Skuta: The free agent was a nice addition. He played well when Aldon Smith was away from the team seeking treatment for substance abuse. Plus, Skuta is strong special-teamer. A nice player to have.

39. Running back Anthony Dixon: Dixon is an interesting player. He is versatile, as he can play running back, fullback and special teams. He is a free agent, though, and I can see him getting some interest from other teams.

40. Guard Adam Snyder: An older, experienced player is good to have on the roster. He played in five games when left guard Mike Iupati got injured. Depending on the development of younger players, Snyder could be back in 2014.
With the San Francisco 49ers' season over, let’s take a look at the impact made by the rookie class:

First round: The 49ers traded up to take safety Eric Reid at No. 18 and they have not been disappointed. He made the Pro Bowl after a strong season in which he showed the game is not too big for him. Reid was very polished and he seems like he will be a big part of the team's future for many years.

Second round: The 49ers feel very good about tight end Vance McDonald's future. He improved as the season went on, especially as a blocker, but he must improve as a receiver, too.

Third round: Auburn linebacker Corey Lemonier played more earlier in the season when Aldon Smith was away from the team, but he did play on special teams for much of the season. He has potential and provides the 49ers with good depth.

Fourth round: Receiver Quinton Patton returned from a Week 4 broken foot in December and showed a real burst. He has explosion and plays with a lot of confidence. He looks like he may be a find.

Fifth round: Defensive tackles Quinton Dial didn’t play much, but the team likes him and he has a chance to be a rotational player soon.

Sixth round: The 49ers like linebacker Nick Moody's his special-teams potential.

Undrafted free agents

Long snapper: Kevin McDermott's battle with longtime snapper Brian Jennings was a story during the preseason. McDermott won the job partly on price tag, and the move paid off. McDermott did a great job all season and had chemistry with kicker Phil Dawson and punter Andy Lee. He looks like he will be a 49er for many years.

Cornerback: Darryl Morris has developed into a key piece for a vastly improved coverage unit. The team likes his potential on defense, as well.

Note: This class can get a lot better. Second-round pick Tank Carradine, a defensive lineman , and fourth-round pick, running back Marcus Lattimore, missed last year with torn ACLs. Both were considered first-round picks had they been healthy. Both are expected to be healthy in 2014, and have a lot of potential.

Conclusion: This looks to be a strong class after a mostly wasted 2012 draft. This class is deep with long-term potential, especially if McDonald takes the next step and Carradine and Lattimore can stay healthy.
In an Insider piece, Mel Kiper re-graded the 2013 draft.

The San Francisco 49ers fared well in Kiper’s re-evaluation. Immediately after the draft, Kiper assigned a 'B' to the 49ers. Now that the season is over, Kiper stuck with his original grade.

Here are some of Kiper’s thoughts:
It's tough to add impact to one of the deepest rosters in the league, but the Niners did, and we could see some dividends going forward. (Eric) Reid was a success story -- he stepped in at free safety and acquitted himself well. Elsewhere, (Corey) Lemonier and (Vance) McDonald had moments, and could develop into starters. I thought (Quinton) Patton had the potential to play a bigger role ...

I think Kiper’s assessment is fair. Reid is a stud, but the key, in the long-run, will be the development of the other players Kiper mentioned. The wild cards are the injured players -- running back Marcus Lattimore and defensive lineman Tank Carradine. They are both expected to have roles in 2014.

How much will we see Aldon Smith?

November, 1, 2013
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More thoughts on Aldon Smith as he has been activated from the non-football illness list:

Smith
No rush: Yes, technically, the San Francisco 49ers were forced to activate Smith from the non-football injury list because he left treatment but there was no rush here. It all revolved around substance-abuse treatment. He could have stayed in treatment for an unlimited amount of time. The fact that Smith was released from treatment was a signal from his physicians and treatment experts that he is ready to resume football activities.

Working his way back into the lineup: Smith will probably play in the 49ers’ next game, against Carolina at home Nov. 10. But don't be surprised if Smith sits and watches for a week. He needs to work his way back into football shape. Expect the 49ers to say Smith needs to win his way back into the lineup. Technically, that’s true. Dan Skuta and rookie Corey Lemonier have played well in Smith’s absence and the 49ers are 5-0 without him. But Smith is a special talent. If he has his life on the right track and he’s healthy, he will play. So, while it could take a bit of time for him to get back to full action, the fact that Smith is active means he will soon be on the field.

Midway point rookie review

November, 1, 2013
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With the San Francisco 49ers' regular season half over, let’s take a look at the impact made by the rookie class:

First round: Safety Eric Reid. The 49ers traded up to take Reid at No. 18 and they have not been disappointed. Reid has stepped right in and looks like he’s been playing for five years. He rarely makes mistakes and he has shown he is a playmaker. The team does not miss Dashon Goldson, who went to Tampa Bay in free agency. Reid is a big reason why this defense is still top notch. Kudos to him for being up to task and to the 49ers for making this choice.

Second round: Tight end Vance McDonald. McDonald has just six catches, but he is playing extensively and blocking very well. I expect him to get better pretty rapidly. He's a potential impact player.

Third round: Linebacker Corey Lemonier. The Auburn product had been a gift to the 49ers. He has played a lot in the past five games with linebacker Aldon Smith in alcohol treatment. Lemonier has shown a burst as a pass-rusher and in the run game. He looks to have a bright future.

Fourth round: Receiver Quinton Patton. Patton showed promise before suffering a foot injury in Week 4. He will be part of the picture later this season and in the future.

Fifth round: Defensive tackle Quinton Dial. Dial has been active the past two games after coming back from an injury. He seems to be part of the rotational plan at nose tackle.

Sixth round: Linebacker Nick Moody. He is expected to be a key member of the special-teams units when he returns from a broken hand.

Undrafted free agents:

Long-snapper: Kevin McDermott. His battle with longtime snapper Brian Jennings was a story during the preseason. McDermott won the job partly on price tag. The move paid off. His snapping has been flawless.

Cornerback: Darryl Morris. He has developed into a key piece for a vastly improved coverage unit. He has quickly secured his place on the 53-man roster moving forward.

Note: This week, the 49ers activated defensive lineman Tank Carradine off the PUP list. He is a dynamic player who is coming off a torn ACL. He could make his presence felt down the stretch. Fourth-round pick Marcus Lattimore is making strides from a major knee injury he suffered in college. He may practice this season with an eye on 2014.

Conclusion: This looks to be a strong class after a mostly wasted 2012 draft. This class is deep with long-term potential. This is one of the deepest rosters in football, yet there are several rookies who are figuring in prominently on a 6-2 team.

49ers second-quarter checkpoint

October, 30, 2013
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The second quarter of the San Francisco 49ers' season is complete. Now let’s look at some key developments as the defending NFC champions sit at 6-2:

Story of the quarter: The perfect quarter. The 49ers went 4-0 in the second quarter of the season and have won five straight games. San Francisco has been dominant in all three phases of the game and have scored at least 31 points in each game during the streak. It is the first time they have done that since 1997. It’s been a stunning rebound from a team that started 1-2 with a lot of adversity. Heading into the second half of the season, the 49ers are clearly a team capable of finishing the season with a downtown parade.

[+] EnlargeVernon Davis
Jan Kruger/The FA via Getty ImagesVernon Davis has scored at least one touchdown in four of San Francisco's past five games.
Offensive MVP of the quarter: Tight end Vernon Davis. Last season, there was talk Davis and quarterback Colin Kaepernick had a lousy chemistry. That changed during the 2012 postseason and the two have continued to build their chemistry this season. After suffering a hamstring injury in Week 2, Davis has been explosive. The highlight came in Week 6 when he had eight catches for 180 yards and two TDs against Arizona. It was tied for the third-highest yardage total by an NFL tight end in the past 20 years. Davis’ presence has helped ease the pain of the injuries the 49ers have at receiver.

Defensive player of the quarter: NaVorro Bowman. This is one of the game’s great underrated players. He is one of the greatest defensive forces in the league. Bowman was my choice as the first-quarter defensive MVP as well. Fellow star linebacker Patrick Willis has been coming back from a groin injury that affected him in both quarters of the season. Bowman has picked up the slack and led the charge of a defense that is playing at a high level.

Rookie of the quarter: Corey Lemonier. The pass-rusher has been playing extensively with star Aldon Smith in alcohol treatment for the past five weeks. Lemonier, a third-round draft pick from Auburn, is getting valuable playing time and he is showing he is worthy of it. He has given the team spark in both pass and run defense. Lemonier is showing he has a bright future.

Disappointment of the quarter: Lack of receiver depth. Kyle Williams and Jon Baldwin are simply not ready to be No. 2 and No. 3 receiving options. Both have started opposite Anquan Boldin during the quarter. Neither made an impact. The 49ers badly miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham. Even rookie Quinton Patton, who has missed the past four games with a broken foot, may become a better option than Williams and Baldwin. It’s amazing the 49ers’ offense has been so productive with the lack of any receiving options behind Boldin and Davis.

Biggest unanswered question of the quarter: The reinforcements. The 49ers have six players who are set to return Players such as Smith, Crabtree, Manningham and cornerback Eric Wright all could make a major impact. It is unusual for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations to be poised to get this type of boost in the second half of the season. The biggest question is exactly when all of these players will be ready to return.

Fearless prediction for the second quarter: Win in New Orleans. One of the biggest NFL games of the third quarter will come in New Orleans in Week 11 when the 49ers visit the Saints. New Orleans is 6-1 and 4-0 at home. This is one of the best home teams in the NFL. Still, the 49ers will not be intimidated. This team has a steely focus and has been through some tough conditions this season. I see a big road upset in a game that will have major NFC playoff implications. A win in New Orleans would serve the 49ers well. All eight of their final games are against NFC opponents (they went 3-1 against the AFC South). Conference games are paramount when it comes to playoff tiebreakers. San Francisco has just three games remaining against teams with winning records. Thus, a win at New Orleans would be enormous.

Chat wrap: Value of rookie class

October, 17, 2013
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Here are some highlights from our San Francisco 49ers’ chat, which was he’d earlier Thursday:

Tristan Arostegui from San Francisco: Would getting a healthy Crabtree back turn the offense back into last year's form or would there still be a missing piece?

Bill Williamson: Eventually, but it may take some time. Even if he is back by Mid-November, it may take a few weeks for him to knock off the rust. But if the 49ers go into the playoffs with Crabtree 100 percent, that will be a huge advantage.

D from Chicago: In your opinion, who are the 5 DL that the Niners suit up this week and how are the snaps distributed? Do they roll with Tony Jerod-Edie at NT and suit up either Tank or Dial for depth, or do they bring up Purcell from the practice squad?

BW: If I had to guess Dorsey doesn't play, Jerod-Eddie starts and Purcell is moved up. Dobbs plays some too. But Jerod-Eddie may have to carry the load. It will be interesting to see. He has had success.

Scott from Rochester, NY: I get that the draft is anyone's guess...but how can you whiff so badly on an entire 2012 draft? If Tank and/or Lattimore don't pan out then it makes you really think we have some concerns in the scouting area.

BW: First of all, yes, the 2012 draft class was bad. But I don't think the Tank and Lattimore picks ruin this class if they don't come around. Both were very, very good value picks. Carradine may have been a top-10 pick if healthy and he will be healthy very soon. This guy can be a game changer. Lattimore, too. Don't forget Reid and Lemonier look goods. This class has big-time potential.

49ers not excited to face Walker

October, 16, 2013
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The San Francisco 49ers will face one of their former offensive weapons Sunday in Tennessee.

All-purpose tight end Delanie Walker left the 49ers for the Tennessee Titans in the offseason as a free agency. He has given the Titans’ offense a similar spark as he did the 49ers. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh has noticed is not excited about playing against him.

“I’m not happy to see him in a Titans 82 jersey,” Harbaugh said. “He’s really playing well. On a personal level, I miss Delanie. Wish him a long and successful career and have great memories of him when we were teammates. But, I know the competitor he is. I know the player he is. Our challenge, our task in defending him is high.”

In other 49ers’ notes:
  • Titans coach Mike Munchak -- a Hall of Fame offensive lineman -- lauded the recent play of the 49ers’ offensive line. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick said his appreciation for his teammates goes beyond the line of scrimmage. “I think my appreciation for them isn’t just for what they do on game day,” Kaepernick said. “They come in every day. They work their butt off. They’re in there lifting early in the morning. Practice, they’re running around making sure they’re putting in work. So, the end result that comes out on game day is because of the hard work they put in.”
  • Rookie pass-rusher Corey Lemonier has been playing extensively the past three games with Aldon Smith receiving treatment for substance abuse. Lemonier had his best game Sunday against Arizona when he had a sack for a safety and forced a fumble. He said he is not thinking as much as he was earlier in the season and it is helping his game.

Upon Further Review: 49ers Week 6

October, 14, 2013
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A review of four hot issues from the San Francisco 49ers' 32-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals:

Davis has huge game: Tight end Vernon Davis had a brilliant game with eight catches for 180 yards. He tied for the third-most yards by a tight end in a game in the past 20 years. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick connected with six other receivers for a total of 72 yards. The 49ers’ passing game revolves around either Davis or Anquan Boldin. Sunday, Davis carried the day as he had 171 receiving yards in the first half.

[+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Frank Gore
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesFrank Gore rushed for 101 yards on 25 carries against the Cardinals.
Grinding the meat: The 49ers’ had 149 yards rushing and starter Frank Gore had 101 yards on 25 carries. Gore is averaging 104.3 yards over the past four games. The 49ers are 3-1 in those games. The 49ers relied on the ground game on an 18-play, 89-yard drive that culminated in a touchdown to give San Francisco a nine-point lead late in the game. Coach Jim Harbaugh said the 49ers were “grinding the meat” during the drive.

Rookies continue turnover craze: The rookie class is making a difference for San Francisco. First-round pick Eric Reid had an interception and a fumble recovery. Third-round pick Corey Lemonier had a sack for a safety and forced a fumble. The 49ers forced four turnovers. They have created 10 turnovers in the past three games.

Discipline continues to get better: The 49ers were penalized just four times on Sunday. They have been flagged a total of seven times in the past two games after being flagged 39 times in the first four games. Earlier in the season, San Francisco was committing silly penalties (especially on defense) at an alarming rate. They hurt the team in losses to Seattle and Indianapolis. It seems like they have cleaned the issue up, which is vital moving forward.

Rapid Reaction: San Francisco 49ers

October, 13, 2013
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SAN FRANCISCO -- A few thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 32-20 win over Arizona Cardinals on Sunday:

What it means: The 49ers have won three straight games. Their point total Sunday was their lowest in the win streak. San Francisco is now 4-2 with the easier part of its schedule upcoming. The 49ers were not perfect, but they made big plays on offense and forced four turnovers. San Francisco has forced double-digit turnovers during the win streak. All seems to be going well for the 49ers after they stumbled in Weeks 2 and 3.

Stock watch: San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis had a huge game. He had 180 yards receiving, which is the tied for the third highest total by a tight end in the NFL in the past 20 years. The 49ers don't have a lot of receiving weapons, but Davis got open and quarterback Colin Kaepernick got the ball to him. The 49ers' run offense also came up big on an epic 18-play, 83-yard drive made the score 29-20 with 6:35 to go. Most of the yardage was gained on the ground. The stock is rising for the 49ers' rookies. First-round pick Eric Reid had an interception and a fumble recovery. Third-round pick Corey Lemonier had a sack for a safety and a forced fumble.

Injuries on defense continue: Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey went out early with a hamstring injury. Dorsey was playing well this season. He was jogging on the sideline, so perhaps the injury will not be serious. The 49ers can't afford another extended injury on defense, especially the line. Dorsey was taking over for Ian Williams, who went out for the season with a leg injury in Week 2. Ray McDonald is playing through a biceps injury. Dorsey's replacement, Tony Jerod-Eddie was banged up late in the game. If Dorsey's injury lingers, the 49ers may be forced to push rookie Quinton Dial to the field. He is eligible to practice this week after starting the season on the PUP.

What's next: The 49ers travel to Tennessee to play the Titans, which lost to Seattle on Sunday. After playing in Nashville, the 49ers head to London for a week to prepare for the Jaguars to finish their AFC South slate. Yes, two winnable road games are on the horizon for the 49ers.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- One of the positive outcomes from the situation surrounding linebacker Aldon Smith is rookie Corey Lemonier is getting a chance to play for the San Francisco 49ers.

Lemonier has played the past two games while Smith is in rehab for substance abuse. He is splitting time with Dan Skuta, who is getting a lot of work in passing situations and has also shined on special teams. Smith could be back on the field sometime next month, but even then Lemonier likely will have a role.

The 49ers took Lemonier out of Auburn in the third round with the No. 88 overall pick. I spoke with Scouts Inc. draft expert Steve Muench to get his thoughts on Lemonier as a prospect. Muench said there were concerns about him (there always are when grading third-round talents), but Muench thinks Lemonier has real NFL pass-rush potential.

Here are Muench’s thoughts on Lemonier, who is becoming a major factor on the 49ers’ 53-man roster:
He can definitely help, especially with the pass rush. We were concerned about his effort at times and in fairness he may have been frustrated playing on a bad team in 2012 because his motor was noticeably better on his 2011 tape. We also felt that he can read keys and get off blockers quicker as a run stopper. On the other hand, his initial burst and closing speed make him a constant threat rushing off the edge. For what it’s worth, he posted the third fastest 40-yard time and 10-yard split at the 2013 combine. He also has the length, upper body strength and lateral mobility to develop a variety of pass rush moves.
NaVorro BowmanCary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsAfter giving up 84 points in three games, NaVorro Bowman and the 49ers are now clamping down.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The code for San Francisco 49ers to succeed under Jim Harbaugh has not been difficult to crack.

It begins with the defense, a unit that is dominating despite playing without All-Pro linebackers Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis.

Sure, the 49ers have been pretty spectacular on offense at times. But this team lives and dies with its defense. And if the 49ers stick around as serious contenders in the NFC, it will be because of the defense.

After all, it was the defense that a week ago lifted San Francisco out of a two-game funk. And while completely dominating the Houston Texans 34-3 on Sunday night, the 49ers showed the rest of the league that this is still one of the most dominant defenses in the NFL.

And that this is still a Super Bowl contender.

There was serious concern about the 49ers after they were humiliated by the Seattle Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts in Weeks 2 and 3. They were outscored 56-10 in those two games. The defense looked tired, and injuries were mounting.

Yet it no longer appears to be a crisis situation in San Francisco. The 49ers have responded to those two drubbings by outscoring the Rams (on the road) and the Texans by a combined 69-14.

After Seattle lost to the Colts on Sunday to drop to 4-1, the 3-2 49ers are back in the NFC West hunt. And after a tough start, the schedule now softens a bit for the 49ers. They host Arizona next week, and then travel to play the Jake Locker-less Titans and then the winless Jaguars in London before the bye. If the San Francisco defense continues to play well, turning a 1-2 start into a 6-2 record at the bye appears more than realistic.

There is no reason to think this defense is going to sag now. It has thrived under adversity.

Smith went to an alcohol treatment center on Sept. 24. There is no timetable for his return, but he may not be back until after the Nov. 2 bye. Special-teamer Dan Skuta and rookie Corey Lemonier have played in his place. Willis went out with a groin injury in the Colts’ loss. The team is being cautious with him (he was a game-time inactive Sunday), and barring a setback, Willis might return against Arizona. Meanwhile, Michael Wilhoite has played well in his absence.

This has been a theme for San Francisco this year. For a defense that hasn’t rotated much under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, its depth is really showing.

Glenn Dorsey took over at nose tackle when Ian Williams went down for the season in Week 2. Tramaine Brock has been spectacular as the No. 3 cornerback since Nnamdi Asomugha went down with a knee injury two weeks ago. There is little chance Asomugha wins his job back.

Sunday’s night’s domination did not come without the potential of more adversity. Standout defensive tackle Ray McDonald left with a biceps injury. He said after the game he will have an MRI on Monday. McDonald would be missed if he is out for an extended period of time. However, his replacement, Tony Jerod-Eddie, had an interception Sunday night after McDonald was hurt.

That’s what these 49ers are doing. Backups are producing when the stars are out.

To think the San Francisco defense has allowed just 14 points in two games playing without Smith, one of the most dynamic pass-rushers in the game, and Willis, a potential Hall of Famer, is stunning. How many other defenses could thrive without their best players?

"That’s why we are here," Skuta said. "You see it in practice. You see guys step up when needed here."

Added standout safety Donte Whitner, who had a tremendous game Sunday night: “This defense runs 22, 23 [deep] … it’s one of the deepest defenses in the league. … Yes, we miss our guys, but we still have to get the job done. You saw that tonight.”

[+] EnlargeTramaine Brock
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesTramaine Brock intercepted two passes and returned one for a TD on the game's first series.
The 49ers’ defensive dominance started early Sunday. On Houston's first drive, Brock made the first of his two interceptions against quarterback Matt Schaub and returned the ball 18 yards for a touchdown. It was the fourth game in a row that Schaub had an interception returned for a score. It set the tone for a long night for the Texans' quarterback.

The 49ers forced four turnovers. The 49ers ate Schaub alive on short passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Schaub averaged just 4 yards on passes that traveled 10 or fewer yards. All three of Schaub’s interceptions came on short passes.

The 49ers scored 34 points and were runaway winners -- and quarterback Colin Kaepernick completed just 6 of 15 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. San Francisco was in game-management mode because of what the defense was doing.

“We look to set the tone on defense,” Wilhoite said. “That’s the plan every week, and it worked out well tonight.”

There was a lot of concern about the San Francisco defense when this team was 1-2. It had allowed 84 points in three games. But I thought the point was misleading. The defense sagged late in games and got tired after the San Francisco offense couldn’t muster and sustain drives against the Seahawks and the Colts.

Sunday night, the offense, led again by a strong ground game, held up its end of the bargain and again and fed off the defense. That’s how the 49ers win.

"I know some people were worried about the defense earlier," Whitner said. "But this is a strong, winning defense. We are showing that."
Arian Foster and Frank GoreGetty ImagesTwo of the NFL's top rushers, Arian Foster and Frank Gore, will try to carry their teams Sunday night.

The Houston Texans are not pleased with themselves, and neither is their Week 5 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers.

After starting off Week 4 the right way with a big win at St. Louis, the 49ers bitterly watched the Texans blow a huge fourth-quarter lead at home in an eventual overtime loss to Seattle, allowing the Seahawks to maintain their two-game lead over the 49ers in the NFC West.

San Francisco will try not to fall further behind when it welcomes the shell-shocked Texans to Candlestick Park on Sunday night. Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and I discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: What changed for the 49ers between Weeks 3 and 4? Is it as simple as playing a weaker opponent, or did they rediscover their identity?

Williamson: Easier competition may have had something to do with it. Against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers were outscored by a combined 56-10. Against the Rams, the 49ers had their way in a 35-11 victory. I truly think the 49ers’ struggles this season have been more because of themselves than their opponent. The trouble in Weeks 2 and 3 started on offense. The 49ers badly miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham; they don’t have much beyond Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, who has been injured. Fortunately, the rushing game got going in Week 4. If the 49ers can keep the run game hot and if quarterback Colin Kaepernick can get the ball to Boldin and Davis, the 49ers will be fine. That will take pressure off a good defense that wasn’t the main problem against the Seahawks or the Colts.

Tania, do you believe the Texans are up to the task of staying with the 49ers, especially after the heartbreak of the Seattle loss?

Ganguli: They were angry about that loss, especially J.J. Watt, who held a menacing news conference (menacing in general, not menacing toward reporters) after the game. They have taken steps to regroup mentally, holding a players-only meeting that allowed for venting, but I think their ability to bounce back will depend on being able to fix some of the problems they had in their first game. Those problems go well beyond quarterback Matt Schaub, who made the most costly and talked-about error this past Sunday in throwing a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The Texans gave up a crucial fumble, dropped a couple of passes and committed a 15-yard penalty that helped set up the game-winning field goal. You’re right that the Texans’ defense hasn’t been the team's biggest problem this season, but Houston has given up drives of 99 and 98 yards this season, and it would like to change that.

How has losing Aldon Smith affected San Francisco’s defense?

Williamson: It would be inaccurate and naīve to think the 49ers don’t miss Smith. He will be away from the team for about a month as he seeks treatment for alcohol abuse. Smith had 4.5 sacks in the first three games this season, and he has an NFL-high 38 sacks since 2011. Last week, the 49ers dominated the Rams’ offense without Smith and star inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who was out with a groin injury, and recorded five sacks. Rookie Corey Lemonier and special-teamer Dan Skuta both played well in place of Smith, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks led the way with big games. Still, Smith is such a presence. The 49ers will be hard-pressed to have sustained dominance without him.

Tania, do you think the Texans can take advantage of Smith's absence?

Ganguli: The Texans have had their own issues in the trenches lately. Left tackle Duane Brown has missed the past two games with turf toe and is still considered day-to-day. Left guard Wade Smith rotated with second-year guard Ben Jones last weekend. Coach Gary Kubiak said that was to preserve Smith for the long term; Smith had knee surgery during the preseason and returned from it after three weeks. Meanwhile, right tackle Derek Newton, another young player, has really struggled. In fact, Brown’s replacement, Ryan Harris, has played far better than Newton, Houston's regular starter on the other side. Now right guard Brandon Brooks is hurt with a toe injury that’s got his foot booted. The most consistent player, in terms of health and production, on the offensive line has been center Chris Myers, but Schaub has faced a lot of pressure this season.

Speaking of Schaub, he had a rough weekend against the best secondary in the NFL. What challenges will he face against the 49ers?

Williamson: I think Schaub’s struggles start with him, and I think the 49ers will try to pressure him quickly to see if he crumbles again. You know better than I do, but from seeing replays, Schaub looked broken after the Richard Sherman pick-six. The 49ers are well aware that Schaub has thrown interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in the past three games, and they will be looking to add to the list. A player to watch is rookie safety Eric Reid. He has proven to be a ballhawk already. I could see him benefiting from Schaub’s issues.

This is a huge key to the game, Tania. Do you think Schaub can bounce back and be effective?

Ganguli: That will be the most important factor in this game. While I don’t blame the entire collapse on Schaub, you’re absolutely right that he looked broken after Sherman’s interception. By contrast, in Week 2, Schaub threw a late pick-six against Tennessee that put the Texans in an eight-point hole, but he recovered quickly enough to lead a game-tying drive that forced overtime. He didn’t bounce back as well against the Seahawks. He made a few nice throws, including a 17-yard pass to Andre Johnson, but overall, looked rattled. If he can’t recover, the Texans have no chance. But if he can rediscover the guy who led that comeback effort you and I watched live against San Diego in Week 1, I think the Texans are in good shape.

 

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