On Oct. 4, two days after his 49ers gave up 194 rushing yards to the Dallas Cowboys, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil was asked if Glenn Dorsey, the team’s most veteran defensive lineman, was ready for more snaps at nose tackle.
“Yeah. I think he’s getting to the point where he’s almost back to being 100 percent and that’s something we’ve talked about,” O’Neil said.
But Dorsey didn’t play a few days later against the Arizona Cardinals because of knee problems. He played 19 of 79 defensive snaps the next week against the Buffalo Bills, and the 49ers allowed a season-high 313 yards on the ground. On Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was sidelined again.
Dorsey tore an ACL last Nov. 22 and didn’t play in the preseason. He’s been on the active roster throughout this season but has logged a mere 64 snaps and has been credited with one tackle – a sack in Week 3.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Is this the kind of staggered season the 49ers were expecting from him?
“Again, every ACL I’ve ever dealt with in my career – and I’m not a doctor or anything – has all been different,” coach Chip Kelly said. “So I don’t think you can put, ‘Hey, this ACL’s like that.’ (Minnesota Vikings running back) Adrian Peterson came back after whatever and started and played really well with it. Other guys, it’s taken a little bit longer.”
In that sense, the nose tackle position, critical to stopping the run – a longtime problem for the 49ers – appears to be another oversight by the team entering the season.
The murky nature of ACL recoveries meant the 49ers couldn’t rely on Dorsey, especially early in the season. Meanwhile, last year’s top nose tackle, Ian Williams, suffered a serious ankle injury in the winter that knocked him out for the season.
That left the 49ers with neither a quality nose tackle nor a veteran presence on their defensive front. Without the 31-year-old Dorsey in the lineup, the oldest defensive lineman is Tony Jerod-Eddie, 26.
Mike Purcell, who entered the league in 2013 as an undrafted free agent, started the first five games at nose tackle. Quinton Dial, whose 6-foot-5 frame perhaps makes him better suited for defensive end, has started the past two games there.
That, in turn, has forced the 49ers’ most recent first-round draft picks, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, to log a lot of snaps on either side of Dial. That’s the long-term plan, but it might be too early to expect both to be run stuffers.
Armstead, for example, mostly entered games as a pass rusher last year as a rookie. This year he’s been dealing with a left shoulder injury since training camp. Buckner, meanwhile, has logged 389 snaps, more than any other defensive linemen on the team. Against the Buccaneers, he played 73 of 75 snaps.
With Armstead and Buckner standing 6-7, which makes them imposing on pass defense, some observers believe their height has made them easy to run against. NFL Films’ Greg Cosell said they tend to stand up and look which way the ball is going.
“Buckner and Armstead both play with poor pad level at this point (in their careers),” Cosell said on KNBR radio. “So what happens is you get moved.”
Opponents are aggressively running against the 49ers’ young line. Teams have carried the ball a league-high 252 times against the 49ers, who are giving up a league-high 185.1 rushing yards a game. By comparison, the next most porous run defense, the Cleveland Browns, is giving up 139.9 yards a game.