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The 49ers seemed to be getting healthier. The offensive line is as healthy as it's been all year, Rattay's excellent play has allowed Garcia to sit out and allow his myriad injuries to heal completely. It was beginning to seem like the covert operatives that were infecting the 49er's water with the injury bug were defenestrated. And now, this:
Jaime Winborn is out for the season with a herniated disk in his neck.
In a statement earlier today, team doctor Robert Millard said, "The MRI revealed a significant disc herniation in his neck that will not allow him to return to play this season. The injury does not require surgery at this time."
Winborn may not be a starter, but he is definitely the team's most valuable player on defense. Winborn allows Jim Mora Jr. to employ the blitz-happy defense that has the 49ers ranked seventh in the NFL.
Let's take a trip back into last year, a year that seems so long ago now. At the beginning of the season, Mora was as happy as a Hindu cow. Game one of the 2002 season Winborn recorded 16 tackles, one sack, and one pass defended. Winborn allowed Mora to utilize versatile linebacker Julian Peterson as an outside pass rusher, and it allowed Mora to change up the looks that opposing offenses could see in one game.
The third game of the season against Washington, Winborn went down with a knee injury that eventually held him out for the season. As a result, the defense could not muster a pass rush since its best player, Peterson, was forced to remain in coverage instead of terrorizing quarterbacks. In the end, the defense could not pay teams to get off the field on third downs. The team finished 22nd in pass defense. A large part of that was due to Winborn's absence.
Fast forward to this year, the 49ers are blitzing like its going out of style. The 49ers have 28 sacks, enough for second in the league, the pass defense is ranked 8th overall, and the defense has been what kept this team afloat during the first 10 weeks.
"We build packages around his ability," defensive coordinator Jim Mora said of Winborn. "We try to utilize him the best we can."
Winborn's absence changes the entire complexion of the 49ers' defense. Picture this: its third and 12 at the Steeler 35. The 49ers have shut down Steeler's running game and are one down away from forcing a punt. Pittsburgh is susceptible to the blitz, but Mora knows that in order to protect against the big play, especially with Bronson out, he needs to play a cover – 2. Instead of blitzing Peterson, he leaves him in underneath coverage. The 49ers don't blitz, and Maddox finds Plaxico Burress on the outside against Rumph for 13 yards. Or, Mora can blitz Peterson and leave players that aren't as capable in pass defense to cover the tight end and/or the running back. Saleem Rasheed will fill into Winborn's role, but Rasheed has not shown the big play ability nor the instincts that Winborn has.
Winborn brings the speed and versatility that has defined the 49ers swarming defense. Without Winborn, the team is left once again in a place where the personnel, or lack thereof, may force Mora to simplify his schemes, or refrain from utilizing the tool that has vaulted this defense into the upper echelons of NFL defenses. With the 49ers post-season hopes on the brink, this could be the bad news that could propel this team off of the ledge and further into mediocrity.
If Mora can find a way to keep the 49ers defense playing at the level that they have all season, he will have a devoted follower for the rest of his coaching career. It will be tough, but its not impossible. Hopefully the spare tire that is placed on the flat that is Winborn's absence will keep this defense trucking a long.