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Understudies step up to give 49ers defense big boost

  • San Francisco 49ers linebacker Michael Wilhoite (57) during NFL football training camp on Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

SANTA CLARA — New blood is helping the San Francisco 49ers' defense play some of its best football of the young season.

The Niners got some standout efforts from reserves asked to take on expanded roles in last week's 35-11 rout of the St. Louis Rams, a performance that vaulted San Francisco to No. 4 in the NFL's defensive rankings.

With All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith and nickel cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha missing that game, the 49ers limited the Rams to 188 yards to end a string of subpar outings to begin the season. San Francisco allowed an average of 28 points and 337 yards in its first three games.

Middle linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who replaced Willis in the heart of the defense, said it was all about urgency after San Francisco started the season 1-2.

“The whole thing is, it's not about who's out there,” Wilhoite said Friday. “This organization produces good players whether it's the starting guy or the backup guy. We approach the game hungry, desperate, willing to do anything to win. That's how our mindset is now. We're desperate to win. When you're willing to do anything to get the job done, you're going to get it done.”

Wilhoite, who had five tackles against the Rams in his first NFL start, wasn't the only backup getting the job done.

Dan Skuta and rookie Corey Lemonier combined to do a fine job replacing Smith's pass-rushing presence on the edge, and Tramaine Brock made some key plays in pass coverage in place of Asomugha.

With Willis and Asomugha still questionable to return this week, and Smith still out indefinitely, the 49ers (2-2) will be asking their supporting cast to step up again Sunday when they host the Houston Texans (2-2) and the league's fifth-ranked offense.

Stepping up hasn't been a problem for these guys.

“Guys just come in,” said Lemonier, San Francisco's third-round draft pick this year. “There's no void to fill. It's just the preparation we have. You go out and do your job when your name is called.”

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