For the San Francisco 49ers, there is no such thing as replacing NaVorro Bowman. An already struggling defense just lost its only superstar. Times are tough in these Bay Area streets.
But life must go on in Santa Clara. There’s still 12 games left on the schedule, and the 49ers have to try and find a way to salvage the season. Well, maybe not in the win column. But Chip Kelly needs this football team to take some tangible growth into 2017, at the very least.
Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil will do his best to divvy up Bowman’s responsibilities. It appears special teamer Nick Bellore will assume the role of Mike linebacker, communicating to the sidelines with the headset in his helmet. Michael Wilhoite and Gerald Hodges, both who were on the roster bubble in the preseason, will be asked to platoon as the Will linebacker. Stanford alum and locker room ping pong enthusiast, Shane Skov, will see some reps.
Here’s the thing: next man up isn’t enough in this situation. The 49ers need one of their defenders to take a tremendous leap forward as a football player.
They need Eric Reid more than ever.
It’s essential for the 49ers to find a consistent playmaker on defense, one who instills fear in quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Ready or not, Reid needs to look in the mirror and tackle the challenge ahead. It’s up to him to transform into this team’s unflinching leader on defense overnight. He’s the closest thing they’ve got to Bowman.
Reid, 24, has seen his season play out just like his 49ers. He was outstanding in Week 1 but has been searching for answers ever since. Reid said he blitzed more times against the Rams than the rest of his career combined and was a key part of slowing down Todd Gurley. The result was a 28-0 shutout and a taste of what the 49ers might look like under a new coaching staff. But that team-wide confidence was shattered in the next three games, all losses to the supremely talented Panthers, Seahawks and Cowboys.
How can the 49ers put more on Reid’s plate? How can they put him in a position to soften the loss of Bowman? Well, they’ve already started to in small doses.
Last week against the Cowboys, Reid lined up as both an outside linebacker and the nickel back. O’Neil understands he has the luxury of safety depth (Antoine Bethea and Jaquiski Tartt) and can get away with using Reid as an interchangeable chess piece on defense.
In an effort to tap into Reid’s skill set and toughen up the 32nd ranked run defense, O’Neil should occasionally play the safety at linebacker Thursday against the Cardinals. Reid’s strengths as a hard hitter and pursuer in space work better closer to the line of scrimmage than they do deep down the field.
O’Neil might not really have a choice. This is the third consecutive year his defense has been ranked close to dead last stopping the run. At some point, he’s got to realize sacrificing Reid’s coverage skills in order to boost the front seven is a risk worth taking.
And Reid would never shy away from anything. The fourth-year pro is already one of the most respected voices in the locker room. He was one of the first 49ers to give a glowing endorsement of Chip Kelly. He was the first teammate to kneel next to Colin Kaepernick.
There’s no more perfect week to debut Reid as a part-time linebacker than this week against Arizona. The quick turnaround almost guarantees Carson Palmer’s concussion will keep him out. Backup quarterback Drew Stanton doesn’t have the arm talent to hurt the 49ers all across the football field. Playing closer to the line of scrimmage, Reid can also be tasked with shadowing running back David Johnson in the short passing game.
There is no such thing as replacing NaVorro Bowman. But unlike almost every other team around the NFL, the 49ers have the rare luxury of safety depth.
Reid can be put into positions to make big plays for this defense. Capitalizing on this could take his game to the next level, while also strengthening the Niners’ defense where they need it most — right in the middle.
Kevin Jones | knbr.com | October 4, 2016