In order to play a 3-4 defense, it is imperative that your linebackers have the skill set to produce in that scheme. While the nose tackle is the most important position, it is the linebackers who are the backbone. Fortunately for the 49ers, they have four great linebackers that have excelled at their respective positions and form arguably the best linebacker combination in the league.
First let’s take a look at the two starting outside linebackers and why they are so successful. On one side, you have Ahmad Brooks and on the other, you have Aldon Smith. In a 3-4 scheme, it is very important that your outside linebackers set the edge while being able to rush the passer.
Brooks broke into the league with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2006 when he declared for the Supplemental draft. He played two years for the Bengals before being claimed off waivers by the San Francisco 49ers’ in 2008. It wasn’t until 2009 that he got his big break when then head coach Mike Singletary decided to utilize Brook’s talent in pass rush situations. Brooks ended up having a career-year despite limited playing time by racking up 6.0 sacks which ranked fourth best by NFC linebackers.
Since then, he’s been solid against both the run and pass. Since 2009, Brooks has racked up 23.5 sacks. That may not seem like much compared to Aldon Smith’s ridiculous output but make no mistake, Brook’s is no push-over. He rarely misses an assignment and seems to make plays when you least expect it evidenced by his 50-yard pick six against the New Orleans Saints. Without Brooks in the lineup, the defense would not be nearly as good which is why San Francisco decided to lock him up to a 6-year $44.5 million contract extension this past off-season.
Now let’s take a look at the best pure pass-rusher in the game today, Aldon Smith. The guy is a freak of nature and plays like a beast on steroids. To date, he has 33.5 sacks for his career which is unheard of. He’s the closest thing to DeMarcus Ware and with his natural pass rush ability may be better. I’ve never seen a pass rusher quite like Aldon. He has the wing span of a 747 and the tenacity of a lion. His god given strength to bull rush and speed to get up field makes him a quarterback’s nightmare!
Now a huge part of Aldon’s success is due to Justin Smith holding the point of attack but without Aldon sacking the quarterback, holding the point doesn’t do much good. Sky’s the limit for him as he already broke the 49ers’ single franchise record for sacks in a season with three games left to play. The scary thing about Aldon is that he’s only 23 and the 49ers would be wise to lock-up the best the game has to offer sooner rather than later.
Now that we discussed the two outside linebackers, the heart and soul of the linebacker corps comes from inside. Those honors go to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The strength of a typical 3-4 inside linebacker is speed and Bowman and Willis have plenty of it.
When you look at NaVorro Bowman, the guy is built like a fire hydrant and plays like a pit bull. His hard tackling and unforgiving hits makes running backs and receivers think twice before going across the middle. Like Brooks, Bowman didn’t get his opportunity to shine until later in his career when Takeo Spikes left via free-agency. And boy, did he make the most of it! He led the team in tackles and was named an AP All-Pro 1st team. Now playing in his second-year as a starter Bowman has showed no signs of slowing down which is why the 49ers’ front office decided to lock him up long-term to a 5-year deal worth $45.25 million.
Now for the heart and soul of the defense and probably the team! Those honors go to five-time All-Pro Patrick Willis. You can say what you want about Ray Lewis but Willis has been the league’s best inside linebacker for quite some time now. Like Lewis, he’s the heart and soul of the franchise and plays like a true gladiator on Sunday’s.
Willis’ ability to make plays sideline to sideline is exciting to watch. The guy covers so much ground that it’s almost impossible to get passed him. Rarely do you see Willis make a tackle from behind and when you do he’s probably chasing down a wide receiver. He’s the epitome of a 3-4 linebacker. He’s as tough as nails and hits ball carriers with brute force. Without Willis, the 49ers’ defense would not be the defense they are today. He’s clearly the leader and the captain that makes the ship go.
After reviewing all four linebackers it’s clear to me that they form the best linebacker tandem in the game today earning the nickname the “fearsome foursome!”