The 49ers go into their Thursday night matchup in St Louis with a losing record for the first time in Jim Harbaugh's tenure. Much of the attention has been focused on the struggles of the 49ers offense, and rightfully so. By and large the 49ers defense is getting off the hook.
The 49ers defense struggled greatly down the stretch in 2012, however those were excused. After all, Justin Smith was injured, and Aldon Smith was dinged up. The fact is, this is not close to the same defense that the 49ers featured in 2011, or even the first half of 2012. Over their last 9 games, dating back to week 15, the defense has given up per game averages of 26.4 points, 266 yards passing, and just over 113 yards rushing.
The Smith injuries were an excuse, and it is showing up now. In 2012 the 49ers pass defense was the 6th best (78.0) in the NFL, and their run defense was the 4th best (94.2 yards per game). Through the first 3 weeks of the season the 49ers have watched their pass defense drop to 16th in the league (87.4), and the run defense drop to 29th (138).
The 49ers front 7 has been considered among the best in the league. The 49ers finished 2012 tied for 11th in the league in sacks. That looks pretty good, until you look deeper and find that Aldon Smith has accounted for over 50% of their sacks since 2012, and 42.5% of their sacks since joining the organization in 2011.
The newest excuse is the play of the offense. While the 49ers offense has struggled, that has nothing to do with the defense giving up back to back 10+ play, 5+ minute drives to open the second half the last two weeks. Teams have realized that while they may not get big yards on the ground, sticking with the run game will eventually break the 49ers defense down. Until they prove otherwise, look for the defense to be tested on the ground week in and week out.
To make matters worse the 49ers now must move forward without Smith, who this week enrolled in an inpatient rehab facility to help work on his substance abuse, and possibly Patrick Willis who injured his groin during the loss to the Colts on Sunday.
The 49ers defense if overrated. It has 13 games left to prove me wrong, starting with tomorrow night in St Louis.