SAN FRANCISCO -- When underdog Dan Skuta broke into the NFL in 2009, one teammate who took a shine to him was the Cincinnati Bengals' star quarterback, Carson Palmer.
"He was always rooting for me, even though I was a defensive guy and he had no reason," recalled Skuta about his days as an undrafted rookie out of Division II Grand Valley State.
Skuta's job Sunday at Candlestick Park will be to defend against Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals while starting a third straight game for the 49ers in place of sack leader Aldon Smith (personal leave).
"Dan Skuta has come in and done a phenomenal job," Palmer said of his former Bengals teammate from 2009-10.
Skuta, after four years with the Bengals, moved from inside linebacker to outside linebacker upon joining the 49ers this year. Still a special-teams ace, Skuta is showing why the 49ers opted to keep him and rookie Corey Lemonier as their reserves while trading away Parys Haralson before the season.
Coach Jim Harbaugh drew on Skuta's roots in hailing his new starter: "He's just a good, Flint, Michigan, guy. He's like Joe Staley, like me; we're Michigan guys. Just something blue-collar, something gritty, determination about those guys."
Palmer said the Bengals played Skuta "out of position" at inside linebacker, noting now: "He's playing the position he was built for. ... Dan's on the cusp of thriving, playing the spot he's got the athletic ability to play, and the size and frame to play."
Skuta isn't the only ex-Bengals teammate Palmer will encounter against the 49ers, nor is Skuta's position switch the only one hailed by Palmer. After seven seasons with the Bengals, Justin Smith indeed looks at home in his sixth year with the 49ers.
"Same thing with Justin Smith, (who) for four or five years was playing out of position and being used improperly," Palmer said. "Now he's thrived since he's been there."
When Skuta hasn't lined up next to Smith the past two games, it's typically been Lemonier on passing downs or Ahmad Brooks coming over from the left side. Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs also have helped fill in on the defensive line.
"There's good players at backup spots all over the place," Palmer said. "It's a very well built roster."
Skuta was the second free agent the 49ers signed in the past offseason, behind nose tackle Glenn Dorsey. Skuta's special-teams prowess figured to earn him a roster spot. His hustle at outside linebacker solidified it, and that's shown up the past two games. Not bad for someone who's first NFL paycheck came on the 2009 Bengals practice squad.
"Just a great combination of size, athletic ability and speed," Palmer raved. "He moves all of the field very well, he rushes the passer well, he plays the run extremely well and really sets the edge."
Skuta returned that praise and painted Palmer in a favorable light, even though he's lugging around the NFL's 30th-ranked passer rating (67.0).
"He seems to be very similar to how he was in Cincinnati," Skuta of Palmer. "He has great control of the offense, and he's really smart, he's going to put the ball in the right places. That all looks the same to me."
Looks can be deceiving: Palmer has thrown as many interceptions (nine) as Houston's Matt Schaub, whom the 49ers pounced on with three interceptions in last Sunday's 34-3 rout.
The NFL's second-best pass defense now belongs to the 49ers, a ranking that's climbed in recent weeks despite the absence of Aldon Smith. That said, Skuta is still looking for the first full sack of his career. So is Lemonier, whom Palmer described as: "No. 96, the rookie, a really, really good pass rusher."
Skuta isn't seeking his first interception against Palmer, however, not if he's willing to count a couple of practice-field thefts when they were teammates.
Said Skuta: "I have lined up a lot against him. If anything, it can't hurt."
For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.