In­juries on de­fen­sive line hob­ble 49ers’ am­bi­tions

San Francisco Chronicle - - SPORTING GREEN - By Eric Branch

Nick Bosa is on the shelf, Dee Ford is in limbo and De­for­est Bucker is in In­di­anapo­lis.

The ob­vi­ous ques­tion: Are the 49ers’ Su­per Bowl dreams in the dump­ster?

Last year, the 49ers got to the NFL’S ti­tle game be­cause of the way they got af­ter quar­ter­backs. The pres­sure gen­er­ated by Bosa, Ford, Buck­ner and Arik Arm­stead forged the team’s iden­tity and head­lined the NFL’S sec­ond­ranked de­fense.

“I think one of the most tan­gi­ble rea­sons we were in a Su­per Bowl last year,” gen­eral man­ager John Lynch said in April, “was be­cause when we were right, when we were healthy, we over­whelmed peo­ple from a de­fen­sive­line per­spec­tive.”

Five months later, the 49ers are thinned at what used to un­ques­tion­ably be their best po­si­tion group: Bosa’s sea­son is over be­cause of the torn ACL he suf­fered in a 31­13 win over the Jets on Sun­day and Ford missed the game be­cause of his lat­est in­jury, a back ail­ment that will side­line him in­def­i­nitely. In ad­di­tion, de­fen­sive tackle Solomon Thomas, the No. 3 pick in 2017 and part of their in­te­ri­or­line ro­ta­tion, also suf­fered a torn ACL against the Jets.

NFL Net­work re­ported Tues­day the 49ers “hope” Ford’s in­jury clears up, but it could take “some time” be­fore

he’s able to re­turn.

Ford, 29, has been out since he missed Thurs­day’s prac­tice to have an MRI exam be­cause of what head coach Kyle Shana­han ini­tially termed “neck spasms.” Shana­han clar­i­fied Mon­day that Ford has a back is­sue.

The ini­tial be­lief that Ford had a neck in­jury sug­gests he’s deal­ing with an up­per­back prob­lem. Ford had surg­eries on his lower back in 2011 and 2017. He had a her­ni­ated disk re­paired when he was at Auburn be­fore he had a lum­bar dis­cec­tomy three years ago when he was with Kansas City.

The 49ers have been count­ing on Ford play­ing more this sea­son to help off­set the de­par­ture of Buck­ner, who was traded to the Colts in a deal in­spired by their salary­cap crunch. The 49ers re­placed Buck­ner with rookie first­round pick Javon Kin­law, but they have ac­knowl­edged he’s not yet in Buck­ner’s class as a pass rusher.

The ad­di­tions of Bosa, via the No. 2 pick, and Ford, via a trade, were trans­for­ma­tive trans­ac­tions last year. CEO Jed York, who has over­seen a team that went 17­47 from 2015 through 2018, has said tak­ing Bosa rekin­dled ti­tle talk in his mind.

“The mo­ment we were able to draft Nick Bosa, I thought that this was pos­si­ble,” York said in Jan­uary be­fore the Su­per Bowl. “Some­thing im­por­tant for Kyle was to have a Su­per Bowl­cal­iber de­fen­sive line. When you bring Dee Ford through a trade/ free agency, and then you’re able to get a player like Nick there when you’re draft­ing sec­ond, you knew that you had a chance. That’s when it sort of hit for me.”

Ford was ef­fec­tive last year. His 6.5 sacks matched the most by a 49ers edge rusher from 2014 to 2018. How­ever, he was limited to 22% of the snaps be­cause of knee ten­dini­tis and a ham­string in­jury, mean­ing the 49ers man­aged dur­ing his ab­sences.

In con­trast, Bosa was a con­stant force, play­ing in all 19 games, in­clud­ing the post­sea­son.

Reach­ing the Su­per Bowl didn’t be­come im­pos­si­ble the mo­ment the 49ers lost Bosa on Sun­day. How­ever, Shana­han’s an­swer was telling Mon­day when asked about the im­pli­ca­tions of his in­jury.

He in­voked quar­ter­back Jimmy Garop­polo’s cat­a­clysmic torn ACL in Week 3 of the 2018 sea­son. And he men­tioned the Bron­cos’ re­cent loss of All­pro pass rusher Von Miller, an eight­time Pro Bowler and Su­per Bowl MVP, to a sea­so­nend­ing leg in­jury be­fore Week 1.

“Ev­ery­one knows how great of a player Nick is,” Shana­han said. “Teams do go through this. We lost our quar­ter­back at the be­gin­ning of the year two years ago. You look at things like Den­ver, los­ing a player like Von be­fore the sea­son started. So it’s all very sim­i­lar to los­ing a guy like Nick.”

The 49ers hope not. They went 3­10 with­out Garop­polo in 2018. And the Bron­cos have started 0­2 with­out Miller.

These 49ers have a far bet­ter ros­ter than the 2020 Bron­cos or the 2018 49ers, but they are less for­mi­da­ble with­out a 22­yearold who al­ready was viewed among the NFL’S elite.

Last year, Bosa was named the De­fen­sive Rookie of the Year and was voted to the Pro Bowl based on a nine­sack reg­u­lar sea­son dur­ing which he be­came the only player to win two NFC De­fen­sive Player of the Week awards. In the post­sea­son, he had added four sacks, the sec­ond most by a rookie since sacks be­came an of­fi­cial statis­tic in 1982.

This sea­son, there was a be­lief he would be bet­ter.

“Nick is tremen­dous,” Ari­zona head coach Kliff Kings­bury said be­fore the sea­son opener. “He had an in­cred­i­ble year last year, just got bet­ter and bet­ter. I’m sure in Year 2, the game will slow down for him down for him tre­men­dously.”

Last week, Jets head coach Adam Gase sug­gested pair­ing Bosa with high­in­ten­sity de­fen­sive line coach Kris Ko­curek was dan­ger­ous.

“You give Kris Ko­curek that guy,” Gase said, “there’s go­ing to be a lot of dam­age done to quar­ter­backs, I know that.”

The 49ers agreed to terms with 2015 Pro Bowl pass rusher Ziggy An­sah, 31, on a one­year deal Mon­day. And they likely will pro­mote de­fen­sive end Dion Jor­dan from the prac­tice squad this week.

An­sah was the No. 5 pick in 2013.

And Jor­dan was the No. 3 pick in 2013.

But they can’t re­place the No. 2 pick in 2019.

And the loss of Bosa, the best player on their best po­si­tion group, makes it far more likely the 49ers won’t be fin­ish­ing No. 1 in 2020.

Sarah Stier / Getty Im­ages

Head coach Kyle Shana­han (left) is forced to look to the bench to find a so­lu­tion for the 49ers’ in­jury­plagued de­fen­sive line.

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