Clouds and sun

Grant Cohn: 49ers' run defense has problems

  • Baltimore Ravens running back Bernard Pierce (30) falls into the end zone for a touchdown in the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

You can dismiss how easily the Ravens’ offensive line pushed around the 49ers’ front seven Thursday night. You can rationalize the Niners giving up 237 rushing yards by pointing out they had only six healthy defensive linemen, and Justin Smith and Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald and Patrick Willis didn’t play. You can simply forget the whole thing because it was a preseason game and those don’t count.

Let’s try to look at the game objectively. What do we really see?

The coach didn’t look happy on the sideline. He looked like he had eaten bad food.

And his front seven looked like they had Velcro on their jerseys. They got stuck on the Ravens’ blocks all game. It’s not a sin to get blocked, but it is a sin to stay blocked, and the 49ers’ front seven stayed blocked Thursday night. They got blocked, manhandled and pushed around by one of the worst offensive lines in football. The Ravens ranked dead last in yards per rush last season.

Maybe that’s why Jim Harbaugh looked sick. It’s disturbing to give up 200 rushing yards in any game to any opponent, especially the worst rushing offense in the league. This was the first time the 49ers had given up 200 rushing yards in a game since Harbaugh took over. The last time the 49ers gave up 200 rushing yards was in 2010 under head coach Mike Singletary. The Chiefs rushed for 207 yards against the Niners Week 3. That was the season before NaVorro Bowman became a starter.

Now we arrive at the key issue – NaVorro Bowman.

Since Bowman became a starter in 2011, he has been the 49ers’ best linebacker – better than Patrick Willis. Bowman has been the 49ers’ best defensive player regardless of position. Bowman has been the 49ers’ best player, period.

Bowman is not coming back soon. He tore his left ACL and MCL during the NFC championship game in January and will miss most of the season, maybe all of it.

His replacements played terribly Thursday night and don’t delude yourself into thinking it was a mere exhibition game and the results were not revealing. They were. Michael Wilhoite, Chris Borland and Nick Moody did not did not fight off blocks. The Ravens steamrollered them. Ray Rice averaged 5.7 yards per carry, and Lorenzo Taliaferro, a rookie fourth-round pick from Coastal Carolina, averaged 5.5 yards per carry. The 49ers made him look like Jim Brown.

The 49ers have had the best front-seven in football since Bowman became a starter in 2011. Will the front seven still be great without him? If Bowman was the only guy the 49ers had to replace, maybe. But there are others.

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