OWINGS MILLS, Md.—The San Francisco 49ers have been to three NFC title games and have made one Super Bowl appearance in Jim Harbaugh’s three seasons as their coach. They have ranked in the top five in the NFL in total defense in each of those seasons.
But the defense that has been the foundation of the team’s success under Harbaugh will be missing some highly significant players with Pro Bowl resumes when the regular season opens.
Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman is likely to miss about half the season after suffering tears of the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee during last season’s loss at Seattle in the NFC championship game. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith is facing what is expected to be a significant suspension by the NFL for a series of off-field incidents.
In Bowman and Smith, the 49ers will be missing two of the league’s more dominant defensive players. Yet other members of the defense expressed confidence here Monday, following the last of three joint practices with the Baltimore Ravens at their training facility, that the unit will find a way to continue playing at its customary high level.
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks said the defense previously has dealt with being minus inside linebacker Patrick Willis, and will deal this time with being minus Bowman and Smith.
“We played without Pat a few times over the past couple years, and NaVorro has been there,” Brooks said. “Michael Wilhoite has stepped in and played. So he has some experience at the inside linebacker position. I think we’ll be fine. They’re two different type of players, you know what I’m saying? But all in all, our defense will be okay.”
Safety Eric Reid expressed similar sentiments, saying: “We have some guys that are very capable of filling in those roles for us. I see those guys playing well.”
There are other injury issues for the defense. Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey suffered a torn biceps and could miss the entire season. Fellow defensive tackle Ian Williams still is attempting to work his way back from a broken ankle suffered last season. Defensive end Justin Smith is returning from shoulder surgery.
The starting defense allowed a touchdown drive by the Ravens’ starters on Baltimore’s first possession of last Thursday’s preseason opener. But the 49ers say they aren’t fretting.
“We have some work to do,” Reid said. “But thankfully we have a couple more weeks of the preseason to get those adjustments taken care of. We get some older guys back as the preseason goes on. I think we’ll be all right for the season.”
Said Brooks: “I just think that it’s the beginning of training camp. We’ve always got room for improvement. … It’s still early in training camp. So whatever we made mistakes on, it’s the time right now to correct them.”
Aldon Smith has met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and the 49ers should find out soon how long Smith’s suspension will be. Bowman’s expected return around midseason could provide a boost for the stretch drive.
“Whenever you’ve got an all-pro player coming back from an injury and being able to go out there 100 percent healthy, it definitely helps,” Smith said.
Clearly, no one is going to feel sorry for the 49ers.
“Everybody’s going to be missing somebody during the season,” said wide receiver Steve Smith, who played against the 49ers twice last season, including once during the NFC playoffs, while with the Carolina Panthers and practiced against them in recent days as a new member of the Ravens. “And so that’s the cards they’re dealt.
“I think their coaches have to make the adjustments. I think their players are strong enough mentally and physically that they know they’ve got to step up for the key holes that are in their defense. … Those are significant people that contribute a lot.”
But as the 49ers attempt to take the final step that has eluded them under Harbaugh and secure a Super Bowl triumph, they continue to like their chances.
“I’m real confident,” Brooks said. “That’s the goal, really, is to win a Super Bowl, win a championship. We came close so many times, three years in a row. Going to the Super Bowl that one year and losing to the Baltimore Ravens, that left a bad taste in my mouth. I think last year was even worse than the year before when we actually lost the Super Bowl.”