In the three years Jim Harbaugh has been the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the 49ers have been ranked, according to PFF (subscription), first, first and third overall. That is quite an accomplishment. They have also sent a multitude of defensive players to the Pro Bowl in each season under Harbaugh. However, due to injuries, pending suspensions and losses in free agency, could the 49ers’ defense be their weakness in 2014?
While the 49ers’ defense has been so stout, their offense has been extremely lackluster. At some points it was almost painful to watch. This season, however, the tables might have turned. While the defense has lost a few key players, the offense has gained some and plans to open up more. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has wide receiver Michael Crabtree for the whole season in 2014 and has new targets in Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Bruce Ellington. He will also have new running backs, Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde, to help spell incumbent Frank Gore.
On defense, it’s been much more subtraction than addition. A major loss for the 49ers’ defense this season will be NaVorro Bowman, out until at least Thanksgiving due to a knee injury. Bowman had a Defensive MVP type of season in 2013 and, even though they have perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Willis still in the middle, Bowman will be missed. His replacement will either be Michael Wilhoite, who filled in admirably for Willis early in 2013, or rookie Chris Borland. Either one will be a major step down from Bowman.
Another key loss in their linebacking corps might be Aldon Smith, who could be out anywhere from four to eight games due to a suspension likely coming from the 49ers or the NFL. Smith has had problems staying out of trouble and will likely miss more time this season because of that. His replacement will be second year player Corey Lemonier. Lemonier is a very solid player that hasn’t come close to his full potential yet, but just about any outside linebacker in the league would be a step down from Smith.
The 49ers’ biggest weakness on their defense is their secondary. They lost Donte Whitner to free agency, starting cornerback Chris Culliver is coming back from a major knee injury that kept him out for an entire year, their other starting cornerback Tramaine Brock doesn’t have much starting experience, their nickel cornerback will most likely be a rookie (Jimmie Ward) and free safety Eric Reid is only in his second season. There is a lot of potential in this secondary, but not much experience. Their most experienced player is Antoine Bethea who was acquired on the first day of free agency. While Bethea is a very good safety, the 49ers will need his chemistry with the rest of the secondary to be very good, very quickly, or they will be allowing a lot of big plays early in the season.
So, will the defense be a weakness in 2014? Compared to years past, the 2014 49ers’ defense will most likely take a step back. That being said, they will still be a top five defense in the league. They will probably start the season slow due to Bowman and Smith being out and the secondary building their chemistry. However, as the season progresses and Bowman and Smith are back, this will be a very strong defense. Barring any other major injuries, this defense should be peaking around the time playoff rolls around, exactly when you want to be peaking.