49ers’ defense looks like it is ready to go 

click to enlarge Aldon Smith
  • AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
  • San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith (99) stands on the sideline during the fourth quarter of an NFL preseason football game against the Minnesota Vikings in San Francisco, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013.

The “Cowboy” is roping and riding, Aldon Smith is in full-fledged freak mode and Eric Reid looks ready to start against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1.

After three weeks of preseason football, the 49ers defense is officially patched up and ready to enforce itself as one of the top units in the NFL again this year.

“They were leading us,” coach Jim Harbaugh said of the defense’s performance in the 49ers’ 34-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park on Sunday.

But the team entered camp with numerous uncertainties on the defensive side of the ball. Would the secondary be vulnerable without All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson? Would Justin Smith regain his explosiveness? Did the last two months of the 2012 season expose potential long-term flaws?

Last season, with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith hampered by injuries, the defense surrendered 520 yards in a win over the New England Patriots, 346 yards in a 42-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and 367 yards to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.

Then, Ahmad Brooks ran into trouble with the law, Chris Culliver blew his ACL in the second week of camp and Patrick Willis went on the shelf with a fractured right hand. Just a few weeks ago, the vaunted 49ers defense was a looming question mark.

But Vic Fangio’s crew is mollifying concerns with its on-field performance right now. In three preseason games, the defense looks as impenetrable as ever.

Granted, Adrian Peterson didn’t touch the ball in his brief action Sunday, but it doesn’t negate the first-stringers’ performance against the Vikings’ first-team offense. The defense held the Vikings to an average of 2.47 yards on 15 plays in the first quarter, holding them to just two first downs.

But it wasn’t the numbers that stood out, it was the way the front seven mauled the Vikings’ offensive line and how the secondary blanketed quarterback Christian Ponder’s targets whenever he dropped back to pass.

Justin Smith is back and he promises to be a handful for opposing lineman again in 2013. All doubts were put to rest when he crashed through the Vikings’ line on third-and-1, hauling down Toby Gerhart for a 4-yard loss.

Aldon Smith is in All-Pro form again, too. He smothered Vikings tight end John Carlson with an open-field tackle early in the first quarter and pounced on fumble forced by Brooks, who played like a one-man demolition crew throughout the opening 15 minutes. But the most encouraging sign for the defense this summer is the stability of Reid’s play in the secondary.

The rookie safety started his first game Sunday and he held his position without experiencing any noticeable growing pains. He hits hard like Goldson and plays with the confidence of a 10-year veteran.

“He’s another guy who just continues to get better,” Harbaugh said.

Of course, it’s always dangerous to reach overarching conclusions after a few quarters of preseason football. But with a defense that’s been top five in the NFL each of the past two years, it’s a safe bet to expect the unit to impose its will again this year.

Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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