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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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Suggs insists thought of retiring didn't cross his mind during rehab

Suggs insists thought of retiring didn't cross his mind during rehab

OWINGS MILLS – Not only does 33-year-old Terrell Suggs expect to be back on the field soon, the Ravens’ outside linebacker expects to play at a high level for several more seasons after recovering from his torn Achilles injury.

“It’s a fair question,” said Suggs on Wednesday, when asked what can realistically be expected from him in 2016. “This is 14 years for me. I came here a young 20-year-old, really didn’t know anything. I had some of the greatest Jedi Masters teaching me. It’s a fair question. We’ve seen a lot of Ravens come and go, and I’m one of the last few here. It’s a fair question, but in my eyes, premature.”

Suggs will begin training camp on the PUP list, but vows to be back soon.

“It’s not going to be long,” Suggs said. “We’re close to where we want to be. I can’t be timid, but I got to be smart. I feel good.”

Suggs suffered his season-ending Achilles injury Week 1 of last season, and has torn each of his Achilles once. Is it asking a lot for Suggs to still be an every-down player and double-digit sack artist? Yes. Does he sound up for the challenge? Yes.

MORE RAVENS: SUGGS' SHIRT ENDORSES GAME OF THRONES TICKET IN 2016 ELECTION

”Never did it cross my mind that I wasn’t going to come back,” Suggs said. “I got a lot of promises to keep. Many miles before I can sleep.  I love football. I love the locker room. I love my teammates. I love being out here being confrontational.”

Suggs also made it clear he wanted to silence doubters.

“We hear the gossip,” Suggs said. “We hear what y’all are saying. We’re confident, but motivated, too.”

One of the toughest parts of missing last season for Suggs was watching the Ravens go 5-11, and being unable to help.

“It was very tough to watch, and knowing what the guys went through, and for us to not have the success that we expected,” Suggs said. “It just didn’t feel good. Now we get a chance to kind of make it right. Last year’s gone, but we have to make sure that (same) team doesn’t show up Sept. 11 again. We work too hard. Our fans deserve better and we deserve better. We work our tails off. It takes a lot to be considered a Raven. We just got to get back to that.”

How well Suggs plays this year will play a part in determining his future. But as far as Suggs is concerned, it’s too early to start talking about his last ride.

“It’s not something I want to visit at the end of this year, or the end of next year,” Suggs said. “Maybe the year after that we can talk about it. What will I be, 36 then? But I’m not worried about it right now.”

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PHOTO: Suggs endorses Game of Thrones ticket with 2016 election T-shirt

PHOTO: Suggs endorses Game of Thrones ticket with 2016 election T-shirt

BY JEREMY FIALKOW (@JeremyFialkow)

Who are you voting for — Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? Before you answer, let's turn to Ravens' outside linebacker Terrell Suggs for some other options.

Suggs, who's ready to make his triumphant return to football after a couple season-derailing injuries, tossed out his 2016 election endorsement to ... the Stark/Targaryen ticket?

The names, of course, stem from two powerful family names in HBO's hit show 'Game of Thrones.' 

(Screenshot/CSN Mid-Atlantic)

Whether Suggs actually stays up to date with 'Thrones' or if the network gifted him merchandise from all of their shows remains to be seen. Regardless, T-Sizzle is starting a movement, so climb aboard.

RELATED: FLACCO WON'T RUSH KNEE INJURY REHAB

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Justin Forsett not trying to hear about running-back-by-committee system

Justin Forsett not trying to hear about running-back-by-committee system

OWINGS MILLS – That running-back-by-committee system the Ravens are thinking about using? Justin Forsett isn’t feeling that.

What’s running-back-by-committee?” Forsett deadpanned. “I don’t understand that.”

Forsett laughed, but he was serious about retaining his starting job and doing the bulk of the work at running back. The Ravens are deep at the position, with Forsett, Buck Allen, rookie Kenneth Davis, Terrance West, Lorenzo Taliaferro all ready for Thursday’s first full training camp practice, while Trent Richardson (knee) remains on the PUP list.

MORE RAVENS: WHY FLACCO WON'T RUSH TO PLAY IN PRESEASON

Forsett will turn 31 years old in October, and even if he retains the starting job, the Ravens are leaning toward reducing his carries. But Forsett enters training camp thinking he can still be a 200-carry, 1000-yard rusher. 

“I grew up with old school running backs,” Forsett said. “I love watching them play - Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, all those guys. Of course if you’re a running back, everybody wants to on the field all the time. I’m going to put myself in a position where they can’t take me off the field. That’s my mentality. At the end of the day, everybody has their role. I’ll let coach decide that.” 

Even if Forsett doesn’t carry the ball as much as he would like, count on him being a consummate team player. All of the Ravens’ younger backs will benefit from being around Forsett, who starts training camp vowing not to give in, to age, or to his running back competition.

“My goal is to go out and lead this team to a Super Bowl,” Forsett said. “I’m going to try to put myself in a position to do so. This is my ninth training camp. It’s a blessing. Me being fired three times throughout my career, traveling to five different teams, I don’t take it for granted.”