49ers to employ "mix and match" defense early

Injuries and position battles will force the 49ers defense to use a "mix and match" approach when they take on the Ravens in their preseason opener Thursday in Baltimore.

Don’t read too much into the 49ers starting defense early in the preseason.

Coordinator Vic Fangio said Sunday his defense will employ a “mix and match” approach to personnel with so many players either nursing injuries or competing for jobs. Things took an unexpected twist over the weekend after it was reported nose tackle Glenn Dorsey suffered a torn left biceps muscle that could end his season.

So add the nose tackle position - one that gets around 15 snaps each game - to the list of position battles going into the start of the preseason slate Thursday in Baltimore. Replacing NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker and the competition for the nickel corner position are also still very much up for grabs.

"Some guys will play very little. Some guys won’t play at all if they’re still nursing something. So, our first 11 that go out there might not be a lot of the guys that are listed as the number one," Fangio said.

Defensive line stalwarts Justin Smith and Ray McDonald likely won’t play and haven’t yet practiced through the first nine days of training camp. Smith is coming off offseason shoulder surgery while McDonald is working through an undisclosed leg injury. Both have been spending their afternoons lifting weights in the team’s weight room adjacent to the practice field and are expected to be ready to go for the regular season. With Dorsey out, it means all three of the team’s starting defensive linemen will be out of action allowing a number of young players to get significant reps.

"We may only go into this preseason game with six or seven D-linemen playing, which is a low number for a preseason game," Fangio said. “And it’s good work for a lot those guys, because the guys that are left, (Tank) Carradine, (Quinton) Dial, (Lawrence) Okoye, (Mike) Purcell, (Demarcus) Dobbs, (Tony) Jerod-Eddie, they’re all young guys at different stages in their career that need lot of work and they’re going to get it."

RELATED: 49ERS LOOKING FOR DORSEY’S REPLACEMENT

Fangio made some pointed remarks about Carradine, who he says needs to improve his knowledge of the system if he wants to get snaps in the regular season. Carradine was out all of last season after suffering an ACL tear at Florida State. The team used a second-round pick on Carradine in 2013, so the expectations are high.

"(Carradine) has a ways to go there yet. Like I've said, sitting in those meetings doesn't mean you've learned it and he's living proof of that. So, he's got to do better from an assignment standpoint for us to feel comfortable playing him. Right now he's missing too many things," Fangio said.

On a more positive note, rookie first-round pick Jimmie Ward is continuing to impress his coaches after making his second training camp interception in Sunday’s practice. Over the last few sessions, his load at nickel corner with the starters has increased while incumbent Perrish Cox is doing most of his work on the outside.

And you’re starting to hear praise about Ward akin to what the staff said about Eric Reid during first camp last summer. Reid went on to make the Pro Bowl and start every game at free safety as a rookie in 2013.

"Obviously Jimmie’s made nice progress and progresses every day. He’s not a final product by any means yet. But he learns well, doesn’t repeat mistakes and has shown good skill level there. So we’re very hopeful there," said Fangio.

Cox’s increased work on the outside have been a product of Tramaine Brock’s ankle injury, which the team is being very careful with. Brock was one of the 59 players that earned a perfect attendance t-shirt and certificate in the offseason. The 49ers don’t mind keeping him away from further injury while letting Ward and Cox get valuable reps.

And at the inside linebacker competition (which we broke down more thoroughly here) remains unchanged and highly competitive.

"It’s a good competition," Fangio said. "Hopefully here at some point, somebody will separate themselves from the pack, make our decision easy. Like I said, everything’s open there. Could end being two guys playing like it was at the outside backer position last year. One guy in base, one guy in nickel, or some form of a mix or it could be one guy playing all the time, much like NaVorro did.

"And it’s not close to being clear yet which way we’ll go or who we’ll go with with. It’s a pretty even competition."

Michael Wilhoite continues to get first-team reps alongside Patrick Willis, while second-year player Nick Moody and rookie Chris Borland have gotten the bulk of the work with the second unit. Undrafted Stanford product Shayne Skov is also getting mixed in.

Rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch made his training camp debut in team drills Sunday and earned a good report from Fangio. Lynch suffered a significant hamstring injury during the team's offseason program.

"(I) thought he moved well," Fangio said. "We were trying to be cautious with him. Didn't want him to get extended too mch to where he'd have to open up and run an extended length there on his hamstring and got through that good, I think. It was a good first day for him considering he's still not 100 percent."

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