49ers defense showing progress but more help still needed

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For most of Sunday's loss to the Chicago Bears, the San Francisco 49ers looked poised to repeat recent history, knocking off the Bears on the strength of kicker Robbie Gould's right foot and a quietly improving defense.

Alas, a narrow 15-14 slugfest win akin to the one the Niners had in Chicago last December wasn't to be as the Niners simply couldn't solve Chicago's fearsome defense. And though the Niners' 14-9 loss to Chicago this time around snapped a two-game winning spurt, there were some good things the Niners and their fans can take away from it.

First and foremost, the 49ers remain strongly in the running for a top-five pick, one that could still rise as high as the top three and, with a bunch of help, to No. 1. The Niners also got another strong day from Gould, who provided all of their points and continued to be among the most consistent kickers in the league.

Perhaps more important than any of that, though, was another strong defensive performance by the Niners. That unit has emerged over the past few weeks and the Niners should be particularly encouraged by the work of the many youngsters who now dot the depth chart on that side of the ball.

“I think we’ve had a lot more continuity the last month and guys have stayed healthier," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "We’ve been a little bit more consistent with the guys who have been out there. We’ve been playing with the same two inside linebackers, the same safeties, for the most part, the corners ..."

Among the young players stepping forward of late: Nose tackle D.J. Jones has shown starter potential while taking reps from veteran Earl Mitchell. Defensive backs D.J. Reed, Marcell Harris and Tarvarius Moore have flashed the ability to be solid contributors, if not starters. The same is true of linebacker Elijah Lee.

But the Niners shouldn't again be seduced by the encouraging performances of some of their younger players.

Against the Bears, the Niners' defense offered a solid performance but one that was also marred by a series of almosts.

The Niners almost came up with two more takeaways to go with the two they did get, only to have one nullified by a booth review and the other wiped out by a penalty. They almost shut down a Chicago scoring drive before it really took off, but defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was called for a face mask penalty. They almost dropped quarterback Mitchell Trubisky for a sack on second down before he escaped to the opposite side of the field and fired a 26-yard completion. They almost came up with a goal-line stand before Bears receiver Anthony Miller beat rookie cornerback Moore for a touchdown.

All of those near misses removed some of the luster from a day in which the Niners kept pace with the NFC North champions largely on the strength of that defensive performance. San Francisco held Chicago to 325 yards on the day, including 3.2 yards per carry and 5.4 yards per play.

And the Niners' takeaways were the first since the Oct. 28 game against Arizona, though it took an awkward backward pass by Trubisky to break that streak.

Over the past three weeks, the 49ers have given up an average of 328 yards per game, 17 points per game and have held opponents to 4.92 yards per play. In the first 11 games, those numbers were 339, 22.4 and 5.26. Considering the amount of young players who are getting regular snaps, that's progress.

"I promise you it’s just guys playing sound," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Sometimes over time, you feel like ‘Hey, I know where I’m supposed to be and I can help this guy or I can help this guy.’ And I think we’ve gotten to the point where guys are playing comfortable, they know their assignments and they’re sticking to them."

The takeaway from all those close-but-no-cigar instances should be this: The Niners must put key resources -- be it cap space, top draft picks or both -- into bolstering the defense this offseason.

Sure, that sounds simplistic, but it did last year, too, and, aside from signing Sherman and drafting linebacker Fred Warner in the third round, most of the 49ers' primary investments came on offense.

If and when the Niners reach a position where they're contending for the postseason, they'll need the players who can turn those almosts into victories.