This Sunday, the 49ers will kick off the second half of the 2013 season by hosting the very hot Carolina Panthers at Candlestick Park.
After a bye week, it’s a chance for the 6-2 49ers – on a five-game winning streak – to get some momentum, heading into the next few games that feature such opponents as the Saints, Redskins, Rams and Seahawks.
There are many reasons for 49ers fans to be optimistic about their team’s chances over the final eight games. For one, the team has figured out a winning formula, with a focus on running the ball offensively and stopping the run on defense. For another, the team is suddenly getting an influx of talent from a long list of players who have been absent. Against Carolina on Sunday, the 49ers will have linebacker Aldon Smith, receiver Mario Manningham, cornerback Eric Wright and defensive tackle Tank Carradine ready to contribute. And, on the horizon, wideout Michael Crabtree will soon return, too.
But there is another reason for optimism as well, and that’s the status of veteran defensive ends Ray McDonald, 29, and Justin Smith, 34.
Both standout players – foundations of the team’s 3-4 defensive alignment – appeared to wear down late last season, and weren’t as effective as they had been earlier in 2012. Smith, of course, suffered because of a torn triceps, and missed time and then had to play with a brace.
So, this offseason, the 49ers were eager to bring in some more depth and vowed to give Smith and McDonald more rest during the 16-game schedule to keep them fresher late in the year.
So far, the 49ers have stuck to the plan, and it could pay dividends in December and January.
Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, wrote this week that both players are getting significantly more rest this year. And now that rookie defensive linemen Quinton Dial and Carradine are active, that’s likely to continue.
According to Barrows, Smith has been on the field for 412 of the 49ers’ 548 defensive plays, 75 percent of the total – and down from 93 percent at this point in 2012. McDonald is down to being in on 74 percent of snaps after also being at 93 percent at this time last season.
McDonald is still playing with a partially torn biceps tendon, and some of his missed plays are a result of the injury. But still, it was a 49ers’ goal to get the two more rest this year, and that’s been achieved.
In addition, McDonald and Smith are getting more time off from practice during the week. This season, in particular, Smith is getting every Wednesday off, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio says that will help.
“You take care of them during the week so that be at their best on Sunday,” said Fangio, who noted that Smith is still in “tremendous shape” and unlike any other 34-year-old defensive lineman. “So I don’t think he (Smith) will ever have a full-practice regimen say like Quinton Dial would, or even some of the other guys. And I don’t have much concern there. Justin knows his body better than anybody.”
Carradine could prove to be a huge boost to the defensive line over the final eight games. The second-round pick from Florida State – who was thought to have been destined for the first round until tearing his ACL last season for the Seminoles – could get significant playing time at both end spots.
Recently, Scouts Inc. draft expert Steve Muench told ESPN.com that he believes the 49ers stole Carradine in the second round.
“One of my favorite players on tape last year,” Muench said. “I felt strongly tht a team should have taken him late in the first despite the knee injury.” Added Muench: “If he can stay healthy, I think the 49ers are getting a first-round talent for the stretch run. He’s tough against the run and he has all the tools to quickly develop into a productive pass-rusher.”
And, with Carradine getting more snaps, a better-rested Smith and McDonald may be bigger contributors as well.