The balled-up athletic tape had barely been swept off the the 49ers’ locker room floor when players returned Monday morning to soak sore bodies in cold tubs and to turn on film of Thursday’s opponent, the Seattle Seahawks.
The coaches were in earlier than that.
“We’re going to be back tonight,” coach Jim Harbaugh said a few minutes after his team’s 17-13 win over Washington. “Coaches will be back tonight. We’re going strong.”
Players don’t like the quick turnaround that comes with a Thursday night game, especially in late November when the bruises, sprains and overall weariness pile up.
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But that’s also where the tumultuous first half of the season for the 49ers can be an advantage. Injuries and a significant suspension upset the team’s lineup and hampered it in its 4-4 start. As a result, the 49ers are perhaps fresher than most teams – at least from a snap-count perspective – as they hit the home stretch.
Aldon Smith, for example, has played in two games after being suspended for the first nine.
“I don’t have as many hits on my body as the guys who have been playing,” the outside linebacker said after Sunday’s game. “Hopefully that comes into play on Thursday.”
What’s more, Smith’s suspension gave rookie Aaron Lynch the chance to establish himself as a regular contributor. Now, for the first time since Harbaugh and his staff arrived in 2011, the team has three healthy, starter-caliber pass rushers to rotate at the position.
Smith started Sunday’s game at his familiar right outside linebacker and led that unit with 52 snaps, two fewer than he played against the New York Giants the week before. Ahmad Brooks, the starter on the other side, played 37 snaps, while Lynch played 21 snaps.
Three other outside linebackers – Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier and Chase Thomas – were in uniform but played on special teams only. Skuta, an early-season starter on defense, led the group with 17 special-teams snaps and drew praise from Harbaugh after filling in on special teams for Derek Carrier, who injured his foot.
“He played in five phases of special teams,” Harbaugh said, “and three of them were not on the menu – the field goal, kickoff and punt return. He was not scheduled to be in those three phases. … So, pretty darn impressive, and he stepped up and did a heck of a job.”
The 49ers have a similar situation at inside linebacker, where veteran Patrick Willis played the first 51/2 games and rookie Chris Borland the past 51/2. First-year players often talk about hitting the so-called “rookie wall” late in the season because there are more games in an NFL season than in college.
But Borland said he is confident he’ll avoid it since he didn’t become a full-time starter until mid-October.
“I’m fine,” he said. “We played 14 games at Wisconsin almost every year, so I’m used to it.”
Other young players – including second-year nose tackle Quinton Dial, rookie center Marcus Martin and rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson – only recently began logging significant minutes at their position because of injury.
Soon, veteran safety Antoine Bethea said, no one will be able to call them rookies anymore.
“They’re pros now,” he said. “But I’ll just be giving them a little tidbit here and there, like to get to bed early, get off your feet, get in the cold tub and try to watch film whenever you can. When Thursday comes, it is go time, so they have to be ready.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.