SANTA CLARA Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has been around good linebacking groups before.
In fact, as the coach of that position for the New Orleans Saints from 1986-94, an argument can be made he coached the best assemblage of all-time in Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling.
Could the current 49ers group of Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks be mentioned in the same breath as that legendary Saints quartet, by the time all is said and done?
Before I start answering any questions about comparing those groups, these guys need to be together a little bit longer. Maybe next year at this time Ill give you a good answer, Fangio said, with a slight smirk.
He continued: You get good players playing together in the same system for that long of a period, good things are going to happen. They learn each other. Things become second nature. The first time they have to communicate a tough situation, isnt the first time anymore. Its the third, fourth, fifth.
Its the spoken communication and the unspoken communication.
That celebrated Saints group was together for seven years from 1986-92, and combined for 18 Pro Bowl appearances. Now that Bowman is locked up for the foreseeable future after he agreed to a five-year extension on Tuesday, the 49ers linebackers will be together until at least 2015.
Any talk that they might become one of the fiercest linebacking groups of all-time is still extremely premature, according to Fangio. After all, Brooks and Bowman are in just their second years as starters, while Smith is starting for the first time this season.
But, it's possible.
I think the potential is there, but weve got to do it. We all know what the word potential means. The Saints did it for seven straight years together, this is really our first year together as a starting unit, he said.
Willis, the veteran of the group, doesnt want to think too far ahead, either. After all, the 49ers are in the middle of what could be a Super Bowl season, standing second in the NFC with a 8-2-1 record as they head to St. Louis this weekend.
He wants to take care of more immediate business.
Right now, all I can think about is just taking advantage of the opportunity now. Not banking on next year, and the year after, and the year after, Willis said on Tuesday after the Bowman extension was announced. You know, things happen and you never know about this business. All we can control is right now.
Bowman said: Right now, were just worried about this year, but we really have a chance to do something special. We have all four linebackers being here, for sure, for the next three years. We can definitely make a great statement for ourselves, and a great legacy for our defense.
REWIND: So happy together -- Bowman, Willis paired through 2016
As opposing offenses prepare to face the ferocious 49ers defense, both now and in future years, Fangio issued a warning for receivers coming across the middle.
If they watch enough film, theyll see that there are some land mines in there that they might step on, he said.
San Franciscos team defense ranks second in the NFL, but had a game it would like to forget just three weeks ago against the Rams.
The start in particular was troubling, as St. Louis jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead on two long drives before San Francisco came back to salvage a 24-24 tie.
Theyll be much more prepared on Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, according to defensive tackle Ray McDonald.
They came out intense. We didnt come out the way we usually do, McDonald said. A lot of guys, weve been talking about it since that game. Well talk about it today in the walkthrough, like, hey man, we cant come out like we did the last time we played them because they outplayed us the last game.
If we do that out there in St. Louis, well get our butts whipped.
Fangio gave a tip of his hat to the Rams for their blocking, which allowed them to gain 159 yards on the ground, including 101 from Steven Jackson.
It was a low point because they blocked us, and they ran the ball extremely well against us. Give them credit, their o-line, tight ends and backs blocked us and ran the ball harder than we were able to defend at that time, so give them credit, he said.
McDonald said the rough start was just something that every team experiences at least a few times throughout a 16-game season.
You dont want to make excuses, but every team goes through it, he said. You have those weeks sometimes. Its a long season; sometimes youre going to be down. But you have to limit the weeks youre down, because if you dont, you end up with a losing record.
McDonald weighed in the biggest point of conversation surrounding the team right now, addressing quarterback Alex Smiths removal from the starting lineup in favor of Colin Kaepernick.
Were a team. Whoever is back there, were going to support him. If Kap is back there, well support him 100 percent. Were about winning football games here, and the best player will play, McDonald said.
Still, he feels for Smith, who was only removed from the lineup when he got hurt against the Rams and who met with the media earlier Thursday morning.
I mean, it does suck to kind of lose your job to injury. But, I mean, that happens in the NFL. Guys will move on, guys have mouths to feed, guys want to win championships. You have to kind of put that in the back of your mind.