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49ers boast one of best linebacking corps around

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49ers boast one of best linebacking corps around

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) This week in the Big Easy, NaVorro Bowman plans to finally make good on the steak dinner he owes pal Patrick Willis.

Bowman is only a couple of months behind. In late November, he promised his teammate a night out after signing a five-year contract extension worth $45.25 million, with $25.5 million in guaranteed money. Willis' request: surf-n-turf, with a medium-plus steak, lobster tail, mashed potatoes, vegetables. Vanilla ice cream for dessert.

Arguably the NFL's most-feared linebacking tandem, these two have understandably been a little bit busy lately leading the San Francisco 49ers back to the Super Bowl on Sunday against Baltimore for the first time in 18 years.

``It will probably happen in New Orleans,'' Bowman said with a grin.

Why not just bring Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith along for the fun, too? They've certainly done their part to earn a little reward.

The 49ers have quite a luxury with ball-hawking inside linebackers Bowman and Willis wreaking havoc on opposing offenses - and Smith and Brooks doing the same on the outside.

``I think that's one of the main reasons we're in the situation we're in, getting ready to play in the Super Bowl, is you've got to have good players,'' All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Smith said. ``And that linebacking corps is probably one of the best in the league, if not the best.''

They take pride in their come-at-you-from-all-angles pass rush and in being stingy run-stoppers. Members of this close-knit unit push each other on the practice field and consider themselves family off it. Just take Bowman's decision to make Willis the godfather of his twin daughters born last year, Stoni and Cali.

Aldon Smith finished with a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks in 2012 - falling three shy of Michael Strahan's single-season mark set in 2001 for the Giants. Yet he didn't have a single one over the final three games, most of that stretch with Justin Smith sidelined because of a partially torn left triceps.

``They make a lot of guys' jobs easier by doing what they do,'' safety Dashon Goldson said.

While Willis is the captain and one of the faces of the franchise, he is always quick to point out he wouldn't be making the plays he does without the rest of this hard-nosed defense that remained intact from last year's playoff run.

``I say it all the time, I'm very fortunate to be a part of the defense and alongside the linebackers and to be playing with those guys,'' Willis said. ``People can make it about me and say what they want to say. I wouldn't be nearly the player I am today if I wouldn't have had those front seven or the linebackers setting the edges and making plays as well. I'm fortunate to have those guys. I hope we can go out there and play our best football Super Bowl Sunday and be able to wrap it all up and say, `We did it.'''

A big reason Bowman decided to stay put through the 2018 season is that Willis will be around through 2016 - keeping one of the best duos together for years to come.

``They're good on film,'' 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. ``Week in, week out, you don't see anything like that as far as their blitzes and playmaking ability - the ability to play the run the way they do and also cover is just very unique.''

The 24-year-old Bowman, a third-round draft pick out of Penn State in 2010, had 149 tackles, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble this season as a second-year starter. As a rookie, his 20 special-teams tackles ranked third in the NFL.

Willis, 28, is wrapping up his sixth NFL season after making 120 tackles with two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles.

``That's a young lion, man, that I talk to a lot,'' said retiring Ravens star Ray Lewis, whose No. 52 is worn by Willis. ``Since he has come into this league, I've always been (talking to him) - since we met each other at the Pro Bowl and I knew his story and why he wears 52 and all that. It's a special story to become close with him like that. I always try to throw the smallest tidbits out to help his career out, to help him (know) how to get better, `You should do this, you should do that.'''

Bowman and Willis were All-Pro picks together in each of the past two seasons. Aldon Smith joined them on this year's team.

And they have plans to do a lot more for the two-time reigning NFC West champion Niners (13-4-1).

Brooks is signed through 2017 and Smith through `15.

``Not just football, they're all great guys. I enjoy being around all of them,'' Bowman said. ``We all can run. We all can do a lot of great things. Some teams only have one guy that can do certain things. I think that's what makes us unique. We have a chance to do something special, and we're going to prepare as if our lives depend on it for this game.''

Last February, Brooks signed a six-year, $44.5 million contract extension with $17.5 million guaranteed. He has more than delivered on the new deal this season, his second as a full-time starter. Brooks had 46 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception he returned 50 yards for a touchdown in a Nov. 25 win at New Orleans - so he should be plenty comfortable in the Superdome.

In fact, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio recently reminded Harbaugh just how important Brooks is to this group of linebackers.

``Vic Fangio made the comment the other day that smartest thing we did as an organization was pay Ahmad Brooks and keep him as a 49er,'' Harbaugh said. ``And we would all concur with that. He's done it with very little fanfare, in terms of how he talks about himself. But, he's been a tireless worker. Go back to the first days of the offseason program, don't know if he ever missed a day.''

Fangio believes this bunch can still play better - and he hopes that performance comes Sunday at the Superdome.

``I think it'd be pretty hard if we compare it to the other 3-4 teams in the league to find a better unit,'' he said.

Yet Fangio remains cautious in his praise. He has coached some mighty talented linebackers in his day, including the New Orleans group considered among the best ever - Sam Mills and Vaughn Johnson on the inside, Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling outside.

And Fangio is not ready to rank the current 49ers unit that hasn't been together that long.

``I've ducked answering that question yet. These guys have been together two years, and only one year as a full-time starting unit because Aldon didn't start last year,'' Fangio said. ``But I do think, eventually, if they stay humble and hungry, I will have a positive answer to that question in due time. ... The sky's the limit with our guys.''

Outspoken safety Donte Whitner has no problem stating it:

``I believe that our linebackers are the top linebackers in the National Football League,'' he said, ``and we have to go out there and prove it next Sunday.''

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Ravens' Ronnie Stanley question mark for Week 4 after missing third straight practice

Ravens' Ronnie Stanley question mark for Week 4 after missing third straight practice

OWINGS MILLS – Ravens coach John Harbaugh would not rule out rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley for Sunday’s game against the Raiders, although Stanley (foot) missed his third consecutive practice Friday.

James Hurst remained the likely replacement for Stanley if he could not play. Stanley has been very solid in the first three games of his NFL career, and his presence protecting quarterback Joe Flacco's blindside would be missed.

Stanley was not in the locker room after practice. Asked if Stanley’s injury could linger for a significant period, Harbaugh said, “I don’t see it that way, from what I’ve been told. I still think he has a chance for Sunday. You’ll see the (injury) report coming out later, but we’re not going to rule him out.”

Meanwhile, left guard Alex Lewis (concussion) was back at practice Friday, which was really a walkthrough, after missing practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Harbaugh sounded optimistic Lewis would play if he continued to pass concussion protocol.

“I think Lewis is fine if he cleared the concussion (protocol)," Harbaugh said. "It wouldn’t be a game-time (decision) in his case, if that’s true, and I’m assuming it is.”

If Lewis could not play, Ryan Jensen would likely be the starting left guard.

MORE RAVENS: West looking to 'get into the groove'

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Is a running back committee approach hurting the Ravens' run game?

Is a running back committee approach hurting the Ravens' run game?

The Ravens are dissecting every aspect of their struggling running game, but Terrance West, for one, thinks one issue might be the inconsistent workload.

West is the team's leading rusher through three games, with a pedestrian total of 119 yards on 33 carries (3.6 avg.). Justin Forsett has carried 31 times for 98 yards (3.2 avg.). Buck Allen, last year's starter after Forsett was injured, has yet to see the field, a healthy scratch in the first three games. Overall, the Ravens rank 26th in rushing overall, and 30th in yards per carry (3.25).

Forsett has been the starter in each game this season, with West subbing in for limited duty. Last week, West played 17 of 67 offensive snaps.

"To be honest, it’s hard. As a running back, you have to get into the groove," West said earlier this week. "You get stronger as the game goes. You have to feel the defense out, but you still have to take advantage of the opportunities no matter what when your number is called, so there’s no excuses.”

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Coach John Harbaugh said early in training camp that the team would go with the hot hand at running back, and that could change each game.

Forsett has said that he, like every back, wants to be the workhorse. He joked that he didn't know what "running back by committee" meant. But through three games, neither Forsett nor West has made the compelling case that he deserves the majority of the workload. In the first two games, neither had a run longer than 11 yards. West's 15-yard run at Jacksonville is now the longest of the season.

 The Ravens figure to continue to use the committee approach at running back, especially once injured rookie Kenneth Dixon returns. He has been out since the third preseason game with a knee injury but returned to practice this week.

Asked about the struggling run game -- and Forsett's role as the starter -- Harbaugh said, "You look at everything. The main thing we look at first is ourselves. What can we do scheme-wise? How can we block it better? How can the backs read it better? How can they run better? It would be every aspect of our run game that we’re looking at."

West said the competition from Forsett, from Allen, from Dixon, should make them all better.

“When another player goes in there and busts a big run, you’re telling yourself, ‘Now I have to go and bust a big run.’" he said. "It’s competition, but at the same time, we’re just trying to help this team win in any way. That’s why we’re 3-0 right now.”

"We just have to take it back to the practice field and take it one play at a time," West added. "The running game is going to bust open. We just have to be patient, and when it happens, we have to take advantage of it.”

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