We're three weeks into the 2011 season, and 49ers new starting inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman is still pulling his weight. The second year man has really established a feel for this defense and looks comfortable in his new role as a starter. At the moment, Bowman leads the 49ers in total tackles with 30, good enough for third in the NFL.
All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis is roughly a games worth of tackles behind Bowman with 22 on the season. Bowman has been a constant force against opponents when they are trying to move the ball on the ground. He continues to display his knack for run-stopping, which is paramount for all great linebackers.
Bowman's enthusiasm to be the first guy in on the tackle allows Willis to play clean-up in this new swarming defense in San Francisco. And because Willis is established, the already stout performance by his protege lets him use his instincts as a spy. Often, we will see Bowman shoot the gap while Willis sits tight waiting for the play to develop.
What we're not seeing from Bowman and Willis are the splash plays or even bone-crushing hits. Between the two of them, they have 0 interceptions, 0 sacks and only 1 forced fumble. They are also non-factors on a lot of passing plays, which I noticed more so this week against Cincinnati.
A lot of the times when the tandem was in zone protection, the quarterback would just deliver a pass right over them or between them. They need to at least get their hands up, taking away the passing lanes for the quarterback if they're not blitzing. These two are way too talented to go unused in any defensive situation.
It would be nice to see more big plays from them, or at least some nice impact hits that change the tempo in our favor. With the offense struggling like it has, the 49ers will need to depend on big plays from other areas like special teams and defensive turnovers.
Where Bowman has not quite filled the shoes of Takeo Spikes is as a third down or goal line contributor. Last week against the Bengals, the 49ers made a couple nice red zone stands and Bowman was a part of those, but Spikes brought something different. Spikes stepped up when the moment called for it, with a big hit for a loss or an interception -- Bowman is yet to prove himself in that part of his game.
Regardless, his 2011 performance, which is statistically better than Willis, should not be viewed as Bowman casting any sort of shadow, because that isn't the case. Instead, fans should get excited that we are seeing more team contributions instead of the burden being on one person.
The Ravens defense doesn't pull out wins just by counting on Ray Lewis; usually they like when Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata or Ed Reed make plays. It takes a team effort to win an NFL game convincingly, and Bowman's play thus far has helped get San Francisco to 2-1.
The tandem of Bowman and Willis will face a real challenge October 2nd when they go on the road to face the Philadelphia Eagles. Although the Eagles offensive line has been struggling, Lesean McCoy has had an outstanding season already, showing no signs of slowing down. The Eagles have arguably the fastest, most talented offense in the league right now and it will be a real test to see if Bowman and Willis can stop them.
Come back to Niners Nation this week for more on the week 4 match-up.
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