49ers finally get a look at starting defense

Patrick Willis (Getty Images)

For the first time this season, the 49ers had a semblance of their starting defense on the field in Sunday's win against the Chargers.

For the first time in 2014, the San Francisco 49ers fielded their starting defense. And it just so happens they beat San Diego 21-7 Sunday in preseason game No. 3.

"We finally had a chance to have our guys back out there and really just showcase a little bit of our defense," Patrick Willis said, after making his debut in Levi’s Stadium.

The 49ers fielded 10 of their 11 presumed starters Sunday for Sept. 7’s season opener in Dallas. The exception was safety Antoine Bethea, who sat out after suffering a concussion in the previous week’s loss to Denver. Jim Harbaugh said during the week he was anticipating Bethea being cleared to play by the doctors after undergoing the league-mandated concussion protocol, but the team was going to hold him out regardless.

Willis, along with linemen Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Ian Williams and corner Tramaine Brock, were all back in the lineup together for the first time this season.

Smith had missed the first two weeks of camp while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, while McDonald was dealing with a leg injury. Sunday was Williams' first action since undergoing four surgeries to repair a broken ankle suffered in Week 2 of last season.

”I think we did okay,” McDonald said. “We’ve got some things we’ve got to clean up. That’s what game planning does. We didn’t really game plan or blitz this week, but in the future we will.”

Willis was on the field for 19 plays. Smith played 17, while McDonald and Brock played 18. Williams played 11.

The 49ers had the league’s No. 3 scoring defense in 2013. But enter 2014 dealing with the loss of three quarters of the secondary, NaVorro Bowman for a significant chunk of the season and a looming suspension to outside linebacker Aldon Smith. With Brock and Chris Culliver starting for the first time, and Michael Wilhoite on pace to replace Bowman, the unit only has one more preseason game before their run at a fourth-straight playoff berth begins.

Wilhoite had started alongside rookie third-round pick Chris Borland in the first two games, where the 49ers were outscored by a combined 57-3. He had the chance to start next to Willis Sunday, who has made the Pro Bowl each of his seven NFL seasons.

The 49ers allowed just seven points Sunday, in part because their reserves were able to play against reserves, instead of being tasked with taking on oppositions’ starters.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers had a good day, completing all but one pass for 85 yards and a touchdown. The Chargers’ lone score came on a Rivers pass to Antonio Gates from 10 yards out as he beat Willis and Craig Dahl (replacing Bethea). It was the second time in as many weeks Dahl was beaten by a tight end for a score, after allowing a scoring pass from Peyton Manning to Julius Thomas against the Broncos.

"He’s a good quarterback and there’s going to be days like that, going to be games like that, where quarterbacks complete some downs, but you’ve just got to fight until the end," Willis said. “Our biggest thing is we don’t want to give them anything, whether they drive the length of the field or not, we just want to give them three points or five them nothing."

The 49ers gave San Diego nothing on their second possession after taking over at the 14-yard line following Colin Kaepernick’s first-quarter fumble. The defense held on four plays and forced a turnover on downs, highlighted by a stop from Willis and Wilhoite on a 4th-and-1 run from Ryan Mathews on a run to the left side.

Willis filled the lane toward the near side while Wilhoite pursued from the far side and jetted the gap to help make the stop short of the first-down marker.

"(Bowman) kept telling me to play a little different a shoot the gap," Wilhoite said. "I did and so it felt good. And, not only for me to make (the play), but to make it with Pat, it was even better, because I’ve seen him and Bow make so many plays together in the past two years.

"It just felt good to share that excitement and share that play."

San Diego scored its touchdown on its third drive, but only had one first down to that point against the 49ers’ vanilla starting defense. Rivers led the offense on a 10-play, 71-yard drive that covered 14:24. The Chargers went no huddle and the 49ers didn’t have their sea legs underneath them.

"I’m thinking about (the regular season opener) and I think most guys in here are," Smith said. "Good tune-up and we’re ready to go."

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