Linebacker NaVorro Bowman, the most outspoken member of the 49ers’ defense both on and off the field, is finished for 2016 after tearing his left Achilles’ tendon Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
The 49ers’ defense, which has been roughed up the last three games, will be missing its leader and arguably its best player for the final three-quarters of the season. San Francisco ranks 26th in total defense and has given up at least 418 yards in each of its last three games, all losses.
Bowman, 28, was injured in the third quarter. He immediately fell and had to be helped off the field. The suspected diagnosis of an Achilles’ tear was confirmed by an MRI on Monday.
The linebacker’s current issue is not related to the left knee injury he suffered in the 2013 NFC Championship Game against the Seattle Seahawks that forced him to miss the 2014 season. Last year, Bowman started all 16 games and finished with an NFL-best 154 tackles. This season, he has a team-high 35 tackles, seven more than safety Antoine Bethea.
Bowman will go on injured reserve Tuesday. Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, whose four-game suspension ended Monday, likely will take his roster spot.
Bowman is one of the few remaining links to the 49ers’ recent stellar defenses. Only Ahmad Brooks, Tramaine Brock, Michael Wilhoite and Tony Jerod-Eddie were even on the roster when the 49ers played in the Super Bowl in February 2013. That season, seven 49ers defensive players were named to the Pro Bowl, including Bowman and fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis.
In 2015, the lone 49ers defender on the Pro Bowl roster was Bowman. After Willis retired last year, Bowman took on a bigger leadership role in the locker room. On a defense teeming with young, mostly unaccomplished players, he is one of the few who commands respect.
“That’s a horrible loss,” Lynch said Monday. “We hope he comes back healthy, takes as long as he needs to take. But he was the leader – he was one of the leaders – of our defense. Everybody knows who NaVorro Bowman is. He was always one of the guys on the field that (opponents) game-planned to.”
Backup inside linebacker Shayne Skov said when he joined the 49ers he learned from Willis and Bowman.
“Guys with that kind of talent and that kind of knowledge are always going to have something to teach others,” Skov said. “Sometimes it’s vocal. Sometimes it’s watching what they do.”
Nick Bellore filled in for Bowman on Sunday and is in line to start at the “Mike” linebacker spot Thursday against the Arizona Cardinals. That player wears a radio receiver in his helmet and relays the play calls to his teammates.
Bellore, 27, has been in the NFL since 2011. He has been mostly as a special-teams player and has yet to start an NFL game on defense. He entered late in the 49ers’ blowout loss to Seattle on Sept. 25 and made his first career interception. On Sunday he played 29 snaps and was credited with five tackles.
In both games, he was paired with Wilhoite, who could be Bellore’s partner in the middle of the defense Thursday. Wilhoite filled in for Bowman during the 2014 season.
“Mike and I have played a lot of football together – in the preseason and in practice, countless hours – and we have a good rapport,” Bellore said. “I enjoy playing with him or Gerald (Hodges) or anybody else that’s in there. We have a lot of time and hours together, so I think that helps.”