By Sam McPherson

Coming off an encouraging performance—on the scoreboard, at least—against the Arizona Cardinals last weekend, the San Francisco 49ers defense might be confident in its ability to take on the New England Patriots this Sunday. However, the 49ers still have several injured players on a defense that was once one of the best in the league earlier this decade. Now, though, San Francisco faces its toughest defensive challenge of the season with less-than-ideal talent and health on the field of play.

Even when the 49ers had a top defense back in 2012, the Patriots still gained 520 yards on the S.F. squad. Considering that two defensive tackles, two linebackers and a cornerback are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, the 49ers are facing New England and its diverse offense at the wrong time. San Francisco’s defense will have its hands full this weekend considering these injuries.

Front Seven Hurting

Last week, the 49ers didn’t allow a 100-yard rushing effort from an opposing running back for the first time since Week 1. However, they still lost, despite holding the Cardinals to just 80 yards on the ground. San Francisco will need a similar effort this week to beat the Patriots, but four injuries to the front seven may make that a tough proposition. Both Quinton Dial and Glenn Dorsey continue to be limited in workouts with knee injuries, and without those two DTs at full health, it’s tough for the 49ers to stop the run. The two players combined for four tackles last week in Arizona, but their inability to practice fully makes them questionable for the New England game.

In addition, linebackers Eli Harold (toe) and Aaron Lynch (ankle) also were unable to practice fully this week, and their availability for Sunday is unknown right now. Harold managed a sack last Sunday against the Cardinals, so his presence would be a big boost to the San Francisco defense against the Patriots offense. Anything the 49ers can do to rattle New England quarterback Tom Brady with a pass rush will be a bonus. As for Lynch, his ankle injury suffered against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 7 has kept him on the sideline since then. He is probably the best pass-rush specialist the team has, and he’s only played in three games this year due to this injury and a prior suspension.

Secondary Getting Healthier

On the positive side, the 49ers have a relatively healthy group in the defensive backfield. Only rookie cornerback Rashard Robinson remains injured currently. He’s missed the last two games with a knee injury, and this week, Robinson was a limited participant. He started four games this season before his injury, overall registering 18 tackles and four passes defended in seven games. Robinson was a fourth-round draft pick this spring for San Francisco, and he’s clearly one of the team’s better secondary players. Having him ready to go on Sunday would be a nice confidence builder for the 49ers defense against Brady and his stable of receivers that always seem to get open.

Patriots Have Their Own Injury Woes At Tight End Position

One big blow to the New England offensive game plan is the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski. He took a big hit last weekend on Sunday Night Football against the Seattle Seahawks, and a punctured lung leaves him very doubtful for the San Francisco matchup this week. Additionally, the Pats’ other tight end is Martellus Bennett, and he is listed as questionable with an ankle injury for the game on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. Since Gronk is probably out, Bennett probably will find his way out onto the field, even if his running ability is a bit diminished.

Questionable:

  • Quinton Dial, defensive tackle (knee)
  • Glenn Dorsey, defensive tackle (knee)
  • Eli Harold, linebacker (toe)
  • Aaron Lynch, linebacker (ankle)
  • Rashard Robinson, cornerback (knee)
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