The San Francisco 49ers are looking like a legitimate powerhouse in 2011 at 6-1. A lot of commentators have pointed toward a revitalized Alex Smith or the creative, genius play-calling by first year head coach Jim Harbaugh. But the strength of the team seems to be the front seven, specifically the linebacking corps.
The linebackers, led by team captain Patrick Willis, have played immaculate football this season. In 7 games so far, the 49ers are still the only team in the league that hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown. That is largely to do with the aggressive and almost impenetrable run defense.
These men also understand the importance of getting off the field on third down. More often than not, it seems like first-year starter NaVorro Bowman is quick to break up the offenses play on third down. Bowman, the second leading tackler in the NFL with 68 takedowns, has been a piece that could help put this 49ers defense over the top.
These guys swarm to the ball, and they are talented tacklers. They are capable of bringing pressure from any of the four linebacker spots, but it is Ahmad Brooks and rookie first rounder Aldon Smith who have excelled at pass rushing. While Brooks brings a tough bull rush style to the table, Smith compliments him with an array of stunts and swim moves. So far this year, they have 10 ½ sacks and 2 forced fumbles between the two of them.
And while Smith is a versatile and athletic pass rusher, he is also strong enough to bull rush a left tackle, which makes him a match-up nightmare. Even though he is not the starter now (P. Haralson), Smith may assume that role as soon as next year, and then the San Francisco backers could really turn into something special.
This is also an intelligent bunch that prides themselves on the mental aspect of the game, as much as the physical. These guys are prepared and it shows with their play recognition and pursuit. In addition to that, they are consistent week to week - they bring attitude, intensity and intimidation to every snap. There is a lot of fire in that group, and the fact that they are a young group inspires hope for the future.
For as good as they've played already, one has to wonder what their ceiling is after they've played 4 or 5 years together. They could develop into one of the best linebacking corps that the NFL has seen in years - comparable to the Steel Curtain that featured linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert.
Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, but I can comfortably and confidently suggest that the 49ers are the strongest team at inside linebacker today. They go get it, and now, they are learning how to finish games. A common strength to most powerhouse teams is the ability to finish games.
In recent years, the 49ers have suffered some heartbreaking losses but with this new coaching staff in place, it seems to be a thing of the past. The development of this group is going to be something for real NFL fans to follow going forward.
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