By Sam McPherson
The San Francisco 49ers have been in the sports news this fall for some non-football reasons, and as the team prepares to take on the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at New Era Field, the change at quarterback — Colin Kaepernick is in for Blaine Gabbert — still is dominating the team’s headlines.
What should be equally important to the team and its fans is the defensive injuries that are piling up on a roster that wasn’t a strong defensive squad to begin with this season. The 49ers ranked 29th last year in total defense, and that was with the NFL’s leading tackler, NaVorro Bowman.
Now that Bowman is out for the 2016 season with a torn Achilles tendon, San Francisco’s defense is even more vulnerable. Toss in the myriad of injuries afflicting other defensive players, and it’s going to be another long season for the 49ers. It really doesn’t matter which QB is on the field, in truth.
Five players on the defensive side of the ball were limited in practice this week, and specifically, the front seven are afflicted the most. This will be a problem when it comes to stopping Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy, one of the best players in the NFL at his position.
Three defensive tackles for the 49ers are questionable for Sunday’s game: DeForest Buckner (foot), Quinton Dial (knee) and Glenn Dorsey (knee). All three players were limited participants in Thursday workouts, while DT Arik Armstead (shoulder) was upgraded to probable for Sunday after completing full practices on both Wednesday and Thursday.
As for the linebackers, the unit is already hurting with Bowman’s absence. But Ahmad Brooks (groin) was limited all week in workouts, so that will hurt the defense’s ability to pressure Bills QB Tyrod Taylor. Some good news, however, is that LB Tank Carradine (toe) was able to fully participate all week in practice, so he should be ready to play on Sunday.
In the secondary, safety Jaquiski Tartt (quadricep) was limited in workouts on both Wednesday and Thursday, and his status is questionable for Sunday. Cornerback Jimmy Ward also has a quad issue, and it is so severe that he was unable to practice at all this week.
Overall then, that’s six contributors on defense that may not be able to play against Buffalo on the road this weekend. The team’s defense has improved from last year (currently ranked 21st), but it will be hard to maintain that improvement without Bowman and with all these injury issues.
Offensively, the 49ers have fewer injury challenges: Guard Zane Beadles (ankle), wide receiver Jeremy Kerley (ankle) and tight end Vance McDonald (hip) all were limited in Thursday’s practice, so they will be questionable for the Sunday matchup. Kerley and McDonald really would make Kaepernick’s return to the starting lineup a lot easier, but the controversial QB may have to make do without them against the Bills defense.
Of course, Kaepernick himself hasn’t played in a regular-season NFL game in almost a year after under-going surgery for multiple injuries suffered last season. While he isn’t listed on the injury report, it will be a touchy situation for the former superstar at first — until he gets comfortable with the speed of the game again and adapts to live action once more.
Arik Armstead, DT (Shoulder)
Zane Beadles, G (Ankle)
Ahmad Brooks, LB (Groin)
DeForest Buckner, DT (Foot)
Tank Carradine, LB (Toe)
Quinton Dial, DT (Knee)
Glenn Dorsey, DT (Knee)
Jeremy Kerley, WR (Ankle)
Vance McDonald, TE (Hip)
Jaquiski Tartt, S (Quadricep)
Jimmy Ward, CB (quadricep)