When the 49ers reached the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman started all 19 games. When the 49ers line up on defense Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams, they will use their fifth inside linebacker tandem this season.
Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said the instability at that position goes a long way toward explaining why the 49ers have allowed more yards (424.9 per game) than any other defense this season and more rushing yards than any 49ers team in the franchise’s 70-year history.
“We’ve been decimated, obviously, at the inside backer position, which is difficult because (it’s) the bridge from the (defensive) line to the secondary and they’re so actively involved in everything that takes place in the run game,” O’Neil said. “And they’re so actively involved with everything that takes place in the pass game and they’re the guys that run everything.”
As it stands, the 49ers are just as thin at the position next season.
A week ago, the only inside linebackers signed for 2017 were Bowman and Shayne Skov. Bowman will be coming off an Achilles’ tendon tear, his second major injury in the last 2 1/2 seasons. Skov, who also is on injured reserve because of an MCL sprain, did not start any games this season.
That’s partly why the team signed Ray-Ray Armstrong to a two-year extension Monday. In Week 1 against the Rams – the 49ers’ only win – he played 42 of 61 snaps next to Bowman and finished with four tackles, two pass breakups and an interception.
The 49ers hoped for a Bowman-Armstrong duo the rest of the season. But Armstrong suffered a season-ending torn chest muscle in Week 2, and Bowman had his injury in Week 4. Armstrong didn’t start either game in which he appeared.
Said O’Neil of Armstrong, a safety in college: “He’s got a skill set that’s very different than anything we have in that room as far as his ability to blitz and play man coverage, which is what we want to be defensively.”
Without Bowman and Armstrong, the 49ers have alternated among backups Nick Bellore, Gerald Hodges and Michael Wilhoite. That setup, O’Neil said, caused the team to simplify the defense.
O’Neil said the changes were made to adjust to “what our guys do best,” which might be a nice way of saying the replacement linebackers weren’t as talented as the ones who began the season.
“That’s the one position where it’s really hard to just plug and play,” O’Neil said. “You can hide guys on other parts of the defense, but inside backer’s tough.”
In Week 1, Bowman and Armstrong helped hold Todd Gurley to 47 rushing yards and the Rams to 65 yards on the ground, the fewest the 49ers have given up this season.
In Saturday’s rematch, the starting inside linebackers likely will be Hodges and Wilhoite with newcomer Carl Bradford as a backup. All three are scheduled to become free agents after the season.
Hodges, who has started 10 games this season, was held out of Sunday’s game against the Falcons for violating team rules after the 49ers arrived in Atlanta. He’s been at practice this week, but O’Neil wasn’t ready to commit to Hodges playing in Los Angeles.
“We’ll see how the week goes,” he said.
Top college ILBs
Player, school and bowl game:
- Reuben Foster, Alabama. Peach Bowl, Dec. 31
- Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt. Independence Bowl, Dec. 26
- T.J. Watt, Wisconsin (ILB-OLB). Cotton Bowl, Jan. 2
- Jarrad Davis, Florida. Outback Bowl, Jan. 2
- Anthony Walker, Northwestern. Pinstripe Bowl, Dec. 28