Limping but Effective 49ers Defense Will be Challenged

Willis expected to be out Sunday night when Niners try to contain potent Broncos offense and QB Peyton Manning

Even if the 49ers defense were at full strength, Sunday night’s game against the Broncos in Denver would be a challenge.

The 4-1 Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning are averaging 389 yards per game and rank No. 3 in the NFL by scoring 29.4 points per game.

Now the 4-2 49ers – already without standout linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith – go into this Sunday night clash likely without All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive back Jimmie Ward, both injured in the victory over the Rams on Monday night.

The Niners defense has been terrific of late, as young players and backups have stepped in, learned and prospered. San Francisco ranks No. 2 in the NFL in total defense, giving up just 287.2 yards per game. But how long can the 49ers continue to patch holes and stay afloat? Especially against Manning, who is so adept at studying film and picking apart weaknesses.

San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, however, has been a miracle worker, adjusting for absences and getting the most out of players such as cornerback Perrish Cox, nose takle Ian Williams and linebackers Michael Wilhoite, Aaron Lynch, Dan Skuta and Chris Borland, who would play for Willis Sunday if his toe injury doesn’t come around quickly.

In speaking with Bay Area reporters Wednesday on a conference call, Manning says the 49ers will be strong defensively, even without some of their best players.

“They have excellent players, well coached,” he said. “Tough against the run. They do a great job of first down. That’s where they get a lot of their stops. Everybody think it’s all about third down, but they stop teams on first down and make third down awfully tough.”

Manning also knows all about Fangio, having played in Indianapolis when Fangio was defensive coordinator with the Colts four seasons.

“I used to enjoy talking ball with him and competing against his defenses in practice,” said Manning. “It was always competitive, and the different places he’s been, his teams have always been very well coached.”

One thing that might bode well for the 49ers is that they finally got a pass rush in the victory over the Rams, getting five Monday night to match their total for the previous five games.

If the 49ers can get some pressure on Manning Sunday night – just as they did in St. Louis – they might be able to stop the Broncos, even with all their spare parts. But as 49es head coach Jim Harbaugh noted, it will be a challenge. Perhaps the biggest so far this season.

“Big challenge. Huge task,” Harbaugh told reporters Wednesday. “Great quarterback, capital ‘G’ at the highest level. And that competitive challenge is something that I think our team, our defense, will be up for.”

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