49ers answer the skeptics with stellar defense

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) So much for all that talk of distractions, letdowns and doubts surrounding San Francisco’s longtime dominant defense. One impressive first-half sequence handled all of that.

The 49ers made interceptions on three straight possessions in a 28-17 win at Dallas on Sunday, and forced four turnovers in all. All that on a day both starting cornerbacks – Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver – and rookie nickel cornerback Jimmie Ward were injured. Perrish Cox again proved a reliable replacement.

”Everyone that’s been talking about our defense, about how we won’t be as good and what not, I don’t get caught up in all that,” said linebacker Patrick Willis, who had one of the picks. ”The only thing that matters to me is how we perform on the field on game day with whoever is on the field. Those guys that aren’t with us, they are certainly missed and hopefully they’ll be back soon, but right now, we just have to focus on those guys that are out there.”

The offense thrived, too, even with two fill-ins on the offensive line in Joe Looney and Jonathan Martin. The Niners’ 21 first-quarter points – on all of four plays – were their most since 1995, and tight end Vernon Davis caught a pair of touchdown passes from Colin Kaepernick.

The 49ers have won their opener in all four seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. Now, they will prepare to make their regular-season debut at the $1.2 billion Levi’s Stadium on Sunday night against the Bears.

Sure, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks rolled to an impressive season-opening victory against Green Bay. And their biggest rival, San Francisco, was arguably just as good to get things started in what should be another thrilling NFC West race between these two organizations determined to get back to the Super Bowl.

All afternoon, the 49ers wreaked havoc on Tony Romo, who made a forgettable return eight months after back surgery. Justin Smith sacked him twice, while Ahmad Brooks added another sack. Cox picked off his first pass in four years.

The four first-half takeaways were the team’s most in a half since getting five in the first half on Dec. 14, 2009, against Arizona.

”Very opportunistic I thought our defense was, great veteran savvy play by Patrick Willis,” Harbaugh said Monday. ”He does it continually with numbing repetition. He’s one of the best ever.”

Brock injured a toe and Culliver sustained a concussion. Ward also must go through the league’s concussion protocol this week given his symptoms.

As has been the case so many times over the past year, the 49ers have found a way to keep winning even when second-stringers have been forced into regular action. Linebacker Aldon Smith is serving a nine-game suspension, and All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is expected to miss at least half the season recovering from left knee surgery following a devastating injury in the NFC championship game loss at Seattle in January.

On the offensive side, rookie running back Carlos Hyde proved he can take some pressure off Frank Gore, and ran for a 4-yard score.

The 31-year-old Gore became the 29th NFL running back to reach 10,000 yards rushing.

”There’s no shelf life in football players,” Harbaugh said in praising Gore and Justin Smith. ”That’s something I learned at an early age from my mom, never to believe in expiration dates. She taught us that very early – `Pay no attention to the expiration date on that can or that milk, or that bread.”’

NOTES: The 49ers released RB LaMichael James and re-signed WR Kassim Osgood. Harbaugh wouldn’t go into details about the decision regarding James, a second-round draft pick in 2012. ”Wish LaMichael well, appreciate his contribution. Wish him success moving forward in his career,” Harbaugh said. … In the wake of Ray Rice’s release by the Ravens, Harbaugh didn’t waver from his stance that the 49ers will let due process play out for DT Ray McDonald, arrested on suspicion of domestic violence Aug. 31 while celebrating his 30th birthday with teammates and friends. ”We’ve been very clear on how we’re approaching the situation,” Harbaugh said.

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