The San Francisco 49ers are a team that was a few plays away from winning the Super Bowl last season. In 2012, they ranked third in total defense and second in points allowed, and have two of the best linebackers in the NFL with Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith. Willis missed Thursday night’s game against the St. Louis Rams with a groin injury, and Smith checked into a rehab center for an indefinite amount of time.
A team that relies on their defense to win could panic missing their two best players on that side of the ball, but the 49ers showed their depth on Thursday. Even without Smith, the team’s leading sack artist, the 49ers put the pressure on Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, sacking him five times. NaVorro Bowman, who entered the game with just four sacks in 51 career games, recorded a career-best two sacks.
One of his sacks led to a forced fumble, which the 49ers turned into a game-sealing fourth-quarter touchdown. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks continued his solid start to the season by collecting seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, two QB hits and one pass defended.
Both Brooks and Bowman have had solid careers and are part of the normal linebacking corps, so they were expected to have big games. The biggest surprise was reserve linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who is in his second year in the NFL. Last season, he played in five games and had seven tackles, most of which came on special teams.
Coming into Thursday Night, he had collected two tackles in the first three games of the season in limited playing time. Forced to step into the starting lineup, Wilhoite tied for the team lead with seven tackles.
While the 49ers will need Smith and Willis to be healthy for them to make a run at the Super Bowl, the depth that GM Trent Baalke has accumulated will allow them to stay afloat until then.