The 49ers are expected to be without linebacker Kwon Alexander for the remainder of the season due to a torn pectoral sustained in Thursday night’s victory over the Arizona Cardinals, according to a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The injury is a significant blow to San Francisco’s stellar defense that’s been the backbone of the 8-0 start. Alexander joined the 49ers in the spring on a four-year, $54 million contract despite tearing his ACL in October 2018 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Alexander is second on the team with 34 tackles. He had an interception in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals and caused a crucial fumble against Washington Oct. 20. Alexander quickly established himself as the emotional tone setter of the defense along with middle linebacker Fred Warner.
“Kwon has been great for us this year on the field and as a leader,” Kyle Shanahan said Friday in conference call.
“I think everyone watching it can feel it and our team feels it. That’s how he is on game day, that’s how he is on the practice field. The speed he plays with, he’s been a great addition for us.”
Meanwhile, San Francisco reportedly got some good news surrounding the left knee of tight end George Kittle, who banged it on a helmet during the first play from scrimmage Thursday. Kittle momentarily left the game and returned to make six catches for 79 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown in the first half.
But he wound up leaving the game in the fourth quarter because of the knee and underwent an MRI Friday. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported Friday a source said the “knee is good.”
Kittle indicated after the game he didn’t expect to miss any time.
San Francisco last spring made adding Alexander a priority after releasing former first-round pick Reuben Foster in Nov. 2018 due to a string of incidents involving his on-again, off-again girlfriend which included getting arrested at the team hotel the night before a game in Tampa Bay.
Alexander was more consistent and reliable than Foster and proved to be worth the contract during the first half of the season. San Francisco entered Week 9 as the league’s No. 1 defense in total yardage and No. 2 in scoring.
The 49ers have remained undefeated despite missing key players on offense, though Alexander is the first major injury on defense.
Left tackle Joe Staley fractured his fibula Sept. 15 which led to rookie sixth-round pick Justin Skule getting inserted into the starting lineup and playing at a serviceable level. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey needed knee surgery three weeks later which meant Daniel Brunskill, who spent the offseason in the AAF, would be starting.
San Francisco has also been without Pro-Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk the past four games due to a knee injury. Juszczyk had a lengthy workout on the field before Thursday night’s game.
“I’ve been impressed the most with the resilience of our guys in the next man up type deal,” Shanahan said. “We’ve had some guys go down in some key spots and the guys have come out there and stepped right in and just really done their job and no one’s made a big deal about it. We’ve still been finding ways to win. It’s been cool, each game has kind of been a little bit of a different story.”
The 49ers are expecting to have Staley, McGlinchey, Juszczyk and perhaps cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (foot) back for the next game Nov. 11 against the Seattle Seahawks (6-2) on “Monday Night Football,” which will undoubtedly be San Francisco’s biggest game to date.
With Alexander out, the 49ers are likely to turn to rookie fifth-round pick Dre Greenlaw to fill the “Will” linebacker spot. That could also mean an increased role off the bench from undrafted rookie Azeez Al-Shaair, who impressed while playing middle linebacker in training camp and the preseason.
Greenlaw, a four-year starter at Arkansas, proved to be a quick study throughout the offseason program. His rapid development led to the release of veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith despite $4.2 million in dead salary cap money getting added to the books.
Greenlaw has 14 tackles on the season and recorded his first career sack on Thursday against Cardinals rookie Kyler Murray. He’s worked primarily as the “Sam” linebacker which is generally used against two receiver sets. He played Alexander’s “Will” role with the starters during the offseason program while Alexander was working back from his knee injury.
Alexander’s absence could also mean a promotion for linebacker Elijah Lee from the practice squad. Lee replaced Foster in the starting lineup during the final five games of last season.