49ers review: Linebackers

49ers review: Linebackers
February 1, 2012, 5:10 pm
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This is the second installment of a nine-part series that reviews every 49ers player and position group.The 49ers' group of linebackers included two first-team All-Pros and a strong candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. It's difficult to do any better than that. Inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman (and Larry Grant, when he subbed for Willis) were exceptional against the run. The outside group, led by pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith, accounted for 23 sacks. Obviously, this unit played a major role in the 49ers' defensive ranking of No. 4 in yards allowed and second-best in the NFL in points allowed. Grade: A
Patrick Willis -- His name was beginning to surface in talk about the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But he sustained a hamstring strain that sidelined him in the first quarter against St. Louis on Dec. 4 and three other games. Willis' tackle numbers were down this season, in large part because he had another speedy linebacker with sideline-to-sideline range lining up next to him. But more was asked of Willis in coverage this season, as he often was asked to shadow top threats at tight end. Willis had an interception and broke up 12 passes. Using the 49ers' numbers, Willis recorded 121 tackles to rank second on the team behind Bowman. Willis recorded two sacks. That's an area in which he can become more productive. He also forced four fumbles and recovered two. Because of the injury, his season could've been a lot better. But he was still good enough to be honored with first-team All-Pro recognition and his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl in five NFL seasons.NaVorro Bowman -- There was a healthy amount of skepticism when the 49ers did not re-sign veteran Takeo Spikes. But all those doubts were quickly erased, as Bowman got off to a strong start and carried it through the entire season. He was outstanding. His injection of speed in the middle of the defense was eye-popping. The biggest compliment that he could receive was this: Often, the 49ers staff had to rewind the video to determine whether it was Bowman or Willis making the tackle. Bowman led the team with 173 tackles to overtake Willis as the team's top tackler. He also recorded a pair of sacks. He did not make the NFC Pro Bowl team, but he was named to the Associated Press All-NFL first team, along with Willis. Heading into his third NFL season, the future looks bright for Bowman. And the 49ers are set at inside linebacker for at least two more seasons.Ahmad Brooks -- He played just about every snap this season at left outside linebacker, as he seemed to grasp Vic Fangio's defense well enough to handle his responsibilities against the run and the pass. Brooks recorded seven sacks and was third on the team with 46 quarterback pressures. Brooks typically moved to left defensive end in nickel situations when the 49ers would convert to a four-man line. He was also pretty solid against the run. He had 12 tackles for losses on the year.Parys Haralson -- He was the 49ers' right outside linebacker from Week 1 all the way through the end of the season. And Haralson did a good job at what he was asked to do. He set the edge against the run, and the 49ers ranked fourth-best in the league on outside run plays to his side. Also, by handing the responsibilities in the run game, it allowed rookie Aldon Smith to concentrate solely on rushing the passer. That area was considered a strength of Haralson's when he topped out at eight sacks in 2008, his third season in the NFL. But his sack numbers decreased each season since then as he became better vs. the run. Together, Haralson and Smith formed a very strong three-down combination.Aldon Smith -- He did not have the offseason program to learn the responsibilities and techniques of an outside linebacker. So the 49ers' coaching staff made it easy for him. His assignment was to rush the passer while working on his complete game in practices. Smith exceeded expectations as a rookie with 14 sacks -- the 49ers' highest individual total in a decade. He also added a couple of sacks in the playoffs. Smith exhibited a rare blend of quickness, strength and closing speed. He showed DeMarcus Ware-like ability. And next season, he'll have a chance to work into an every-down role. Larry Grant -- He had a couple big hits on special teams throughout the season. And when Willis went down with an injury for the better part of four games, Grant stepped right into the lineup and played well. In those four games, he recorded 29 tackles with two sacks and broke up five passes. Obviously, Grant will be a backup if he returns to the 49ers. He is scheduled to be a restricted free agent. If another team envisions him as a starter, he could be lured away.Blake Costanzo -- He did not play a snap of defense, but his value was on special teams. In many ways, he exemplified the whole blue-collar mindset that Jim Harbaugh instilled in the 49ers. Costanzo was named as a Pro Bowl alternate after grading out as the 49ers' best special-teams performer. His best game was in the playoffs when he forced a fumble and recovered a fumble on special teams in the 49ers' victory over the New Orleans Saints.Tavares Gooden -- The four-year veteran was one of the 49ers' core special-teams players. He had just one tackle on defense for the season, but he came up with 12 tackles on special teams. He is scheduled for unrestricted free agency. He could return in the same role next season.