SANTA CLARA (AP) — This week in the Big Easy, NaVorro Bowman plans to finally make good on the steak dinner he owes pal Patrick Willis.
Bowman is only a couple of months behind. In late November, he promised his teammate a night out after signing a five-year contract extension worth $45.25 million, with $25.5 million in guaranteed money. Willis’ request: surf-n-turf, with a medium-plus steak, lobster tail, mashed potatoes, vegetables. Vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Arguably the NFL’s most-feared linebacking tandem, these two have understandably been a little bit busy lately leading the San Francisco 49ers back to the Super Bowl on Sunday against Baltimore for the first time in 18 years.
“It will probably happen in New Orleans,” Bowman said with a grin.
Why not just bring Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith along for the fun, too? They’ve certainly done their part to earn a little reward.
The 49ers have quite a luxury with ball-hawking inside linebackers Bowman and Willis wreaking havoc on opposing offenses — and Smith and Brooks doing the same on the outside.
“I think that’s one of the main reasons we’re in the situation we’re in, getting ready to play in the Super Bowl, is you’ve got to have good players,” All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Smith said. “And that linebacking corps is probably one of the best in the league, if not the best.”
They take pride in their come-at-you-from-all-angles pass rush and in being stingy run-stoppers. Members of this close-knit unit push each other on the practice field and consider themselves family off it. Just take Bowman’s decision to make Willis the godfather of his twin daughters born last year, Stoni and Cali.
Aldon Smith finished with a franchise-record 19½ sacks in 2012 — falling three shy of Michael Strahan’s single-season mark set in 2001 for the Giants. Yet he didn’t have a single one over the final three games, most of that stretch with Justin Smith sidelined because of a partially torn left triceps.
“They make a lot of guys’ jobs easier by doing what they do,” safety Dashon Goldson said.
While Willis is the captain and one of the faces of the franchise, he is always quick to point out he wouldn’t be making the plays he does without the rest of this hard-nosed defense that remained intact from last year’s playoff run.
“I say it all the time, I’m very fortunate to be a part of the defense and alongside the linebackers and to be playing with those guys,” Willis said. “People can make it about me and say what they want to say. I wouldn’t be nearly the player I am today if I wouldn’t have had those front seven or the linebackers setting the edges and making plays as well. I’m fortunate to have those guys. I hope we can go out there and play our best football Super Bowl Sunday and be able to wrap it all up and say, ‘We did it.'”
A big reason Bowman decided to stay put through the 2018 season is that Willis will be around through 2016 — keeping one of the best duos together for years to come.
“They’re good on film,” 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. “Week in, week out, you don’t see anything like that as far as their blitzes and playmaking ability — the ability to play the run the way they do and also cover is just very unique.”
The 24-year-old Bowman, a third-round draft pick out of Penn State in 2010, had 149 tackles, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble this season as a second-year starter. As a rookie, his 20 special-teams tackles ranked third in the NFL.
Willis, 28, is wrapping up his sixth NFL season after making 120 tackles with two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles.
“That’s a young lion, man, that I talk to a lot,” said retiring Ravens star Ray Lewis, whose No. 52 is worn by Willis. “Since he has come into this league, I’ve always been (talking to him) — since we met each other at the Pro Bowl and I knew his story and why he wears 52 and all that. It’s a special story to become close with him like that. I always try to throw the smallest tidbits out to help his career out, to help him (know) how to get better, ‘You should do this, you should do that.'”
Bowman and Willis were All-Pro picks together in each of the past two seasons. Aldon Smith joined them on this year’s team.
And they have plans to do a lot more for the two-time reigning NFC West champion Niners (13-4-1).
Brooks is signed through 2017 and Smith through ’15.
“Not just football, they’re all great guys. I enjoy being around all of them,” Bowman said. “We all can run. We all can do a lot of great things. Some teams only have one guy that can do certain things. I think that’s what makes us unique. We have a chance to do something special, and we’re going to prepare as if our lives depend on it for this game.”
Last February, Brooks signed a six-year, $44.5 million contract extension with $17.5 million guaranteed. He has more than delivered on the new deal this season, his second as a full-time starter. Brooks had 46 tackles, 6½ sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception he returned 50 yards for a touchdown in a Nov. 25 win at New Orleans — so he should be plenty comfortable in the Superdome.
In fact, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio recently reminded Harbaugh just how important Brooks is to this group of linebackers.
“Vic Fangio made the comment the other day that smartest thing we did as an organization was pay Ahmad Brooks and keep him as a 49er,” Harbaugh said. “And we would all concur with that. He’s done it with very little fanfare, in terms of how he talks about himself. But, he’s been a tireless worker. Go back to the first days of the offseason program, don’t know if he ever missed a day.”
Fangio believes this bunch can still play better — and he hopes that performance comes Sunday at the Superdome.
“I think it’d be pretty hard if we compare it to the other 3-4 teams in the league to find a better unit,” he said.
Yet Fangio remains cautious in his praise. He has coached some mighty talented linebackers in his day, including the New Orleans group considered among the best ever — Sam Mills and Vaughn Johnson on the inside, Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling outside.
And Fangio is not ready to rank the current 49ers unit that hasn’t been together that long.
“I’ve ducked answering that question yet. These guys have been together two years, and only one year as a full-time starting unit because Aldon didn’t start last year,” Fangio said. “But I do think, eventually, if they stay humble and hungry, I will have a positive answer to that question in due time. … The sky’s the limit with our guys.”
Outspoken safety Donte Whitner has no problem stating it:
“I believe that our linebackers are the top linebackers in the National Football League,” he said, “and we have to go out there and prove it next Sunday.”
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