Losing linebacker Aldon Smith for an indefinite period is devastating for the San Francisco 49ers. Smith, who reportedly checked into rehab this week after last Friday’s DUI arrest, had 19.5 sacks in 2012, nearly breaking the NFL’s single-season sack record. The 49ers will be hard-pressed to replace that production. Head coach Jim Harbaugh indicated that linebackers Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier will take on the monster task of filling Smith’s shoes. So who are they?
Skuta, who joined the league in 2009 as an undrafted free agent out of Grand Valley State, spent his first four years in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals as an inside linebacker and special teams contributor. When Skuta signed with the 49ers in the offseason, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio believed that Skuta’s size, at 6’2” and 251 pounds, made him a good fit as an outside linebacker. During training camp and preseason for the 49ers, Skuta performed well, recording three sacks and 13 tackles. Thursday’s contest against the St. Louis Rams will be a huge test for him as he has never started a game at outside linebacker.
While Skuta is expected to be used mainly in the 49ers’ base defense, rookie Lemonier is expected to get work in the team’s nickel package. Lemonier, listed at 6’3” and 255 pounds, was drafted in the third round out of Auburn. While at Auburn, Lemonier had 17 sacks and seven forced fumbles. In the 2013 preseason, he performed well, recording two sacks and five tackles. So far in the regular season, Lemonier has played a total of seven defensive snaps, all against the Seattle Seahawks. That lack of experience may be a factor in the Rams game.
Experience or not, Skuta and Lemonier’s time in the spotlight has arrived. The pressure will be on both linebackers to deliver on this short work week. Since the 49ers traded away Parys Haralson and Cam Johnson, Skuta and Lemonier are the team’s best hopes to help fellow outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks deliver pressure, hits, and sacks on Rams’ quarterback Sam Bradford. The 49ers will need a stout defense to beat the Rams, a tough division rival who beat and tied the 49ers in last season’s two division games. Given that history between the two teams, and the relative inexperience of Skuta and Lemonier, Thursday’s showdown in St. Louis should be very interesting.
Sara DeBord is an NFL writer for www.footballandfutbol.com and www.baysportsreport.com.