After roaring to an 8-0 record, the 49ers became wounded down the stretch this season, looking more vulnerable as the injuries piled up.
Still, the 49ers were able to secure a win in Week 17 against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, giving them a first-round bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage throughout.
As the No. 1 seed at 13-3, coach Kyle Shanahan’s team is seen as the presumptive Super Bowl favorite coming out of the NFC. But that doesn’t mean there are no red flags, according to 49ers legend and Hall of Famer Steve Young.
“This defensive line, I thought was top in the league, maybe top two,” Young told KNBR’s “Tolbert, Krueger and Brooks” during the 49ers’ bye week. “Remember the game where they just mauled Aaron Rodgers and he put the white flag up? That’s what those defenses like Denver, when Peyton Manning couldn’t raise his arm and they still won the Super Bowl, or Seattle, Baltimore had a group like that. There are teams that have had these ferocious defensive lines, and we’ve lost that.
“I understand there were injuries and so forth, but that’s my greatest concern. Without that, our defense becomes something where everyone has to stand out on their own and a ferocious defensive line can kind of mask a lot of stuff, and that’s my concern. You run into these teams that can put up big points, and you don’t pull it out 48-46, you lose a game because you’re not putting the pressure on the quarterback that you need to.”
The 49ers’ defensive line was one of the most dominant units in all of football through the first 10 weeks of the season, But injuries to a number of players, including Dee Ford and D.J. Jones, has put a lot of pressure and wear on the likes of Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
Ford is a game-time decision for Saturday’s NFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Minnesota Vikings, but the 49ers will get linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Jaquiski Tartt back, which should help solidify the second and third levels of the defense.
The 49ers will have to bottle up running back Dalvin Cook on Saturday and force Kirk Cousins to make accurate throws into tight windows to beat them. If they can do that, they should punch their ticket to the NFC Championship Game.
A fully healthy defensive line will provide a big lift to a 49ers team that will need to get the Vikings behind the sticks and turn up the heat on Cousins on third-and-long.
If the defensive front isn’t whole, Young worries that some of the 49ers’ other issues could be exposed at some point in the playoffs.
“There’s other issues that we know the team has, but we haven’t had to worry about them,” Young said. “… I really believed this defensive line was supposed to be the best in the league, and if I have that, the rest of it is going to fall into place. If I don’t, then I’m at risk.”