Quick Links

49ers boast one of best linebacking corps around

201301231641600847442-p2.jpeg

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.''

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Quick Links

Gillmore: No panic despite thinning TE ranks

Gillmore: No panic despite thinning TE ranks

When the Ravens entered training camp, tight end was considered the deepest position on the team after the signing of veteran Ben Watson and the return of Dennis Pitta from two serious hip injuries.

But now, the Ravens are staring at the prospect of having just one healthy tight end for their Week 1 game against the Bills.

Watson suffered what is believed to be a season-ending Achilles injury on the first play of the Ravens preseason game Saturday night against the Lions, and Dennis Pitta (broken finger) and Maxx Williams (undisclosed) remain sidelined with injuries. Two other tight ends, Darren Waller and Nick Boyle must begin serving suspensions when the regular season starts – Waller four games and Boyle 10.

So of the top six tight ends on the depth chart, Crockett Gillmore is the only healthy one who will be on the roster for the Sept. 11 opener.

But Gillmore, who had one catch for 2 yards in the Ravens 30-9 win Saturday night, said no one is in panic mode.

MORE RAVENS: 3 OBSERVATIONS FROM FLACCO'S PRESEASON DEBUT

“This is an organization that has dealt with those kinds of things since I’ve been here, and we’ve always had guys step up,” Gillmore said.

Watson’s injury does have a painful ring of familiarity; the Ravens lost veterans Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith to season-ending Achilles injuries last year.

“It’s not like we’re sweating bullets around here,” Gillmore said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can play.”

The problem is, at least two of them – Waller and Boyle – can’t play early in the season. Pitta has been out with a broken finger sustained in a scuffle with Kamalei Correa in a stadium practice earlier this month, and Wiliams has missed the past two preseason games. Their availability for Week 1 remains uncertain.

Watson’s injury could open the door for Daniel Brown to make the team, at least until Waller’s suspension is over, depending on the progress of Pitta and Williams.

Another option might be to look to utilize fullback Kyle Juszczyk more often in a hybrid role.

 “That’s a versatile guy that can do everything,” Gillmore said.

“We’re not sweating,” Gillmore said. “We’ve got a bunch of receivers, too. We’ll make it work.”

Quick Links

Ravens win preseason game vs. Lions, but lose Watson for season

Ravens win preseason game vs. Lions, but lose Watson for season

BALTIMORE – Five instant observations from the Ravens’ 30-9 preseason win over the Lions, which made the Ravens 3-0 this preseason:

1. Ben Watson’s season-ending Achilles injury made this victory hollow:

The veteran tight end was lost on the first play from scrimmage, and his season was lost before he ever played a regular season game for the Ravens. Football can be cruel.

2.  Rookie running back Kenneth Dixon’s knee injury could be another blow.

It was announced that Dixon had a sprained left knee, but he was helped off the field, and no timetable was given for his return. It would not be surprising if an MRI is forthcoming. If so, many people will be holding their breath.

MORE RAVENS: DEEPER LOOK AT FLACCO'S PRESEASON DEBUT

3. Rookie pass rusher Matt Judon looks ready to have an immediate impact.

Judon had a strip-sack on another active night. At the very least, Judon looks like could have an immediate role as a situational pass rusher.

4. Linebacker-safety Anthony Levine could be the Ravens’ most improved player.

Levine had an athletic interception, and he has made a successful transition to playing closer to the line of scrimmage. Last week, Levine picked off a pass on a two-point conversion attempt against the Colts and took it to the house. Levine’s ability to line up in multiple spots, and to make plays, could make the Ravens’ defense more versatile and less predictable.

5.  Wide receiver Jeremy Butler keeps making plays.

I know it’s preseason, and I know the Ravens are deep at wide receiver. But I think they have to keep Jeremy Butler. He had his second touchdown catch of the preseason, he can contribute on special teams, and he caught 31 passes last season. I see the Ravens keeping seven receivers - Steve Smith Sr., Kamar Aiken, Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, Chris Moore, and Butler.

Quick Links

Three observations as post-injury Flacco returns to field in preseason debut

Three observations as post-injury Flacco returns to field in preseason debut

BALTIMORE – Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco played two series Saturday night against the Lions, and completed 11 of 16 passes for 94 yards before leaving the game. It was Flacco’s first game since his season-ending knee injury last November. Here are three observations from Flacco’s action:

1. The Ravens got what they wanted - they got Flacco work, and he escaped unscathed.

Flacco had talked about playing the entire half, but Ryan Mallett took over in the second quarter. Flacco had already thrown 16 passes, and his knee has not been an issue since Day 1 of training camp. After seeing what happened to Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo the night before, it was hard to blame the Ravens for playing it safe.

Flacco got his first sack out of the way, and it came courtesy of an old friend. Lions tackle Haloti Ngata got credit for sacking Flacco for a one-yard loss. Flacco and Ngata were teammates with the Ravens for seven seasons. Flacco got right up, and Ngata and Flacco now have something else to laugh about, because he shrugged it off and continued to play. 

MORE RAVENS: WATSON LOST FOR SEASON

2. Flacco had good chemistry with wide receiver Mike Wallace.

He tried to hit Wallace deep on his first pass, and Wallace caught three passes for 37 yards. Wallace was one of the new weapons the Ravens acquired this offseason, and he has talked about how much he looked forward to playing with Flacco. Perhaps the Ravens will get more from Wallace than the Vikings and Dolphins did in recent years.

3. Flacco did enough to enter Week 1 feeling even more confident.

He won’t play in the preseason finale, so Flacco can prepare for Week 1 against the Bills, and he has already gotten his feet wet in game action. Mission accomplished.