Monday, November 17, 2014
Rookie linebacker Chris Borland is a bona fide playmaker for the 49ers defense.
By Peter Panacy, Featured Columnist
November 16, 2014
Rookie inside linebacker Chris Borland continues to show why he belongs in a starting role for what has been a beleaguered, yet effective, San Francisco 49ers defense.
San Francisco's third-round pick has demonstrated this ability three weeks in a row—a much-needed aspect considering the 49ers will be without perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Willis as the latter recovers from a toe injury suffered in Week 6.
Willis' injury has subsequently opened up the door for Borland.
His first full contest came against the Denver Broncos in Week 7—a game in which San Francisco had little chance to shut down Peyton Manning and Denver's offense. But in Weeks 9 through 11, Borland has become not just a standout rookie but a stalwart in the 49ers defense.
Who would have expected this out of a 6'0", 248-pound third-round pick?
The loss of Willis could have spelled disaster for a 49ers defense that has already dealt with elongated absences of starters like linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith and cornerback Tramaine Brock.
But prior to Week 11, the defense has actually been able to hold its own—a primary reason why the 49ers now sit at 6-4. Let's look at some of the defensive statistics, courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com:
Borland has been a major factor in those statistics in the last three weeks.
In Week 9, Borland amassed a team-leading 15 tackles and three assists in a 13-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams. A week later, Borland backed up his numbers with another 11 tackles and six assists against the New Orleans Saints.
The rookie also jumped on an overtime fumble by Drew Brees that helped set up the game-winning field goal for San Francisco.
It was after Week 10 when Willis was placed on injured reserve. With that news, Borland's role grew exponentially, as he is now expected to be a critical playmaker in San Francisco's stalwart defense.
"I know he has many people in his family and has other people that are big fans of his," head coach Jim Harbaugh said via Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News, "but I'm tied for at least his No. 1 fan."
These back-to-back performances earned Borland two Rookie of the Week Awards, per 49ers.com. The rookie stands as the defending award recipient after last week. It's plausible that he could receive it again after Week 11.
Prior to the 49ers' game against the Giants, no other player had as many tackles since Week 7, per NFL statistics (h/t Brown).
Borland backed up that accolade with a 13-tackle performance against New York on Sunday—two of which were for a loss.
While the tackles are impressive, the biggest element of Borland's game was felt when the inside linebacker was able to pick off quarterback Eli Manning twice.
The second interception proved to be the most decisive. The Giants were in the 49ers' red zone late in the fourth quarter. A touchdown would have given New York a one-point lead.
Borland's two interceptions were at key moments in San Francisco's 16-10 victory over New York.
Tom Canavan of The Associated Press (h/t MSN.com) described what happened next: "Three fade patterns to Beckham, Rueben Randle and Donnell fell incomplete. Manning tried to force a pass to Preston Parker on fourth down, but Dontae Johnson tipped the ball and Borland came up with his second pick."
With his second interception of the game, Borland now has done something that neither Willis nor Bowman have ever accomplished—two picks in a single game, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
"The guy's playing out [of] his mind," noted 35-year-old veteran defensive end Justin Smith, via Eric Branch of SFGate.com.
Borland is playing a high level of football. There isn't much doubting that.
But the 49ers will hope that the rookie will continue performing at such a high level. He is emerging not just as a stopgap option in the middle of the defense but rather as an integral playmaker that bolsters an already formidable 49ers defense.
With San Francisco looking to make a late playoff push, Borland will have to continue to be in the right place at the right time.
He has lived up to this need, and there is little reason to suspect anything different moving forward.
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