Talented linebacking corps has Niners feeling Super By John McMullen, NFL Editor
NaVorro Bowman led the 49ers in tackles and was on the All- Pro team in 2011 & 2012.
A Super Bowl berth was on the line in the raucous Georgia Dome.
The San Francisco 49ers had a precarious four-point advantage over Atlanta in the waning moments of the NFC Championship Game. Falcons Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan, who engineered a last-second win over Seattle the week before, looked like he was about to do it again, driving his team all the way to the Niners' 15-yard line at the two-minute warning.
San Francisco's defense, particularly its linebackers, had other ideas, however.
Coming out of the timeout, Ryan was flushed left and slammed into the turf by Ahmad Brooks while completing a short pass to Jason Snelling. Ryan sprained the AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder on the play and was in obvious discomfort with two chances to keep the drive and Atlanta's season alive.
On 3rd-and-4 from the 10-yard line, it was Brooks again, breaking up a Ryan pass, before his running mate, NaVorro Bowman, effectively ended the Falcons' hopes, draping one of the best receivers in the game, Roddy White, and knocking away Matty Ice's fourth-down pass.
"It was a tough down in distance," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Wednesday when reliving the sequence. "They only needed four yards and they had two downs to get it. We played some tight coverage and rushed four guys. And they executed well. It was a big batted pass by Ahmad on the third down. It was a big play by him on the second down when he hit the quarterback. We just played tight coverage and rushed four and it worked out."
Bowman's play in space against one of the NFL's top receivers was really special.
"It was a real good play," Fangio said. "He was in coverage on a receiver. The receiver ran a short route and good tight coverage, good legal coverage and cut the guy off and batted the ball down."
Brooks and Bowman, of course, aren't even San Francisco's best linebackers. That honor has to belong to six-time All-Pro Patrick Willis or perhaps, second-year pass rushing standout Aldon Smith, a serious Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
The linebacker position is an embarrassment of riches for Fangio.
"I'm very appreciative to have them on the team that I happen to be with," Fangio said as his defense started preparing for Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens on Feb. 3.
He should be.
Brooks is probably the runt of the litter so to speak, and he was named a second-team All-Pro this season.
Willis and Bowman are a pair of inside thumpers with Willis serving as the team's defensive leader. The Ole Miss product was a Butkus Award winner in college and hit the ground running in the NFL, winning defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2007 and being named All-Pro in every season since.
Bowman started a little slower as a third-round pick out of Penn State in 2010, but by his second NFL season, he led the 49ers in tackles and was on the All- Pro team right next to Willis, something he repeated again in 2012.
Smith was the final piece to the puzzle, arriving in the City by the Bay as the seventh overall pick out of Missouri in 2011. A former defensive lineman at Mizzou, Smith made the transition to edge pass rusher in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme quickly, finishing his rookie season with 14 sacks, first in the NFL among all freshmen and a franchise record for first-year players.
Smith only upped his production in 2012, notching the franchise's single- season sack mark with 19 1/2, and he is expected to battle with Houston's J.J. Watt and Denver's Von Miller for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Down the stretch and into the playoffs, blocking Smith has been paramount for opposing offensive coordinators, who often devise schemes to chip him before settling into a double team. That has limited Smith's production but not his effect on the game.
"He hasn't had a sack in five games and we've won four of them," Fangio said.
The extra attention Smith receives makes things easier for Brooks and Bowman to make the splashy plays like they did in Atlanta.
The Ravens figure to pose a different and more difficult test for the Niners' linebacking cops in the big game, however. Baltimore is one of the few teams in football who can play with the same physicality Frisco brings to the dance.
"Yes, could be," Fangio said when asked if the Ravens were more physical than some of the other teams San Francisco has been playing. "They've got a really good blocking fullback in (Vonta) Leach. And he's dominated some linebackers around the league, inside linebackers in particular. And we've better be ready to take him on."
That and the big-play ability Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco provides is what Fangio is focusing on.
"I've always liked Joe Flacco," Fangio said. "He's got a big arm. He throws the ball effortlessly. The game isn't too big for him. He's calm. He's confident. And he's capable of making all the throws."
Baltimore, though, might have the bigger problem in trying to deal with four Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers.
"It's always good to have good players," Fangio said when talking about his 'backers. "I really enjoy working with them. That's the thing that I hope nobody loses in talking about them. These guys are good people. And they're fun to be around. I enjoy coaching them. They like to be coached. They want to play good. They have pride in their performance. And they're a good group."
The Ravens just might call them a great group in less than a week.
Below is a capsule look at the defense of the San Francisco 49ers:
DEFENSIVE LINE: The headliner of San Francisco's 3-4 front is veteran Justin Smith, a high-motored four-time Pro Bowl selection who is still dealing with a triceps injury suffered in Week 15. Smith is still plenty banged-up but his presence and leadership can't be emphasized enough, although his main attribute, prodigious strength, has certainly been curtailed.
"I think it's getting better every week," Smith said when talking about his arm. "I can do more stuff every week. It heals up the more time goes by. It's feeling better. I'm getting used to wearing the brace a little bit better. I know how many more games I have left now, so it's just four more quarters."
Isaac Sopoaga's job at nose tackle is to tie up multiple blockers in order to help Willis and Bowman flow to the ball. The 6-foot-2, 330-pound product generally does a nice job keeping opposing offensive linemen get to the second level. Ray McDonald rounds out the unit and is a nice 3-4 end, stout enough to occupy and blockers and athletic enough to occasionally get upfield.
LINEBACKERS: This is quite simply the best linebacking unit in all of football. Aldon Smith will likely finish third in the NFC Defensive Player of the Year voting after piling up a team-record 19.5 sacks.
"He's setting records left and right, so I think anytime anybody does that it's surprising," Justin Smith said. "Just his transition into the NFL and how easy he's made it look, that's what the great ones do -- they make it look easy."
Bowman and Willis are both All-Pros and if anything Bowman has actually surpassed his more high-profile colleague as an all-around player. Willis, though, is the unquestioned leader described by head coach Jim Harbaugh as "getting the job done kind of guy and not taking credit kind of guy."
"I've always had high expectations for myself," Willis said. "Any time I'm able to make a play or do something that most (people) don't think I could do or can do. For me, in my mind, I've already seen it or felt like I could do it. So I don't get overly excited about anything because in my mind I'm just doing my job."
Brooks, meanwhile, would be the best 'backer on a lot of clubs and he's the fourth best for Fangio.
CORNERBACKS: The 49ers haven't recorded a ton of interceptions but regulars Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have down a solid if unspectacular job while nickel back Chris Culliver brings some size and big play ability to the defensive backfield.
Rogers went to the Pro Bowl in 2011 but Brown has been San Francisco's top corner in 2012, amassing 13 passes defended. Rogers still carries the reputation, however, and teams tend to look elsewhere. When things are spread out and Culliver is on the field, the opposition will take its shots at him but the South Carolina product was second on San Francisco with two interceptions and led the club with 15 passes broken up.
SAFETIES: It's not like Ronnie Lott is manning the back end for the 49ers but dual Pro Bowl selections Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner provide an intimidation factor for Frisco, at least one as big as you can have in today's watered down, overly regulated product.
Both are big hitters, wrap up well and limit yards after the catch. Goldson is probably the better of the two in pass defense but neither are spectacular when matched up in man-to-man coverage.
"There is a lot of want to. Guys want to make plays, we want to make our tackles, we want to win, and we want to compete," Goldson said when talking about the 49ers' defensive backfield. "There is a lot of want to in our secondary."