2_San Francisco 49ers2

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49ers Defense You’d have to go back another century to another set of positions—The Fearsome Foursome, The Purple People Eaters— to find a quartet of NFL position players as dominant as San Francisco 49er linebackers. Not only are they the best of our time, they are the best of all-time, when it comes to linebacking crews. First, you have the best 49er on the team, left inside linebacker Patrick Willis, the Superman of the team. Then you have the second-best Niner, Aldon Smith, who is allowed to get away with off-the-field mess because he is so good at pass rushing on the field. Call him Batman, the brooding star. Then you arguably have the third-best player on the squad, right inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, an elite pass rusher who also shifts into a pretty good run defender. He is expected back from his ACL injury around Week 6. Cleaning up the left side is outside linebacker, Ahmad Brooks, who may not have the Pro Bowl hype of his fellow Justice Leaguers, but as a speed-rushing Cyborg, everyone knows—peers and foes alike—he belongs. The 49ers’ defense is built around these stars. The secondary is new and somewhat untested as a unit. The defensive line is good—led by defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald—but it is lacking in depth. Things can go wrong at the line or downfield, but most likely, we the fans will not pick up on it because the linebackers know how to blow up the problem first. By getting to SCOREBOARD 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 PLAYOFF FINISH CC SB CC - - REGULAR SEASON W-L 12-4 11-4-1 13-3 6-10 8-8 POINTS PER GAME 25.4 24.8 23.8 19.1 20.6 POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME 17.0 17.1 14.3 21.6 17.6 YARDS PER GAME 323.8 361.8 310.9 313.3 290.8 YARDS ALLOWED PER GAME 316.9 294.4 308.2 327.8 326.4 TURNOVERS 18 16 10 23 24 TAKEAWAYS 30 25 38 22 33 Key Additions: WR Stevie Johnson, SS Antoine Bethea Key Subtractions: SS Donte Whitner, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Carlos Rogers, CB Taren Brown Rookies: potential first- and second-stringers CB Jimmie Ward, RB Carlos Hyde, T Marcus Martin, LB Chris Borland, WR Bruce Ellington, T Fou Fonati the perpetrator before the perp perpetrates. This LB corps is built around a pass-rush quartet that knows how to get the ball under any formation (30 takeaways ranked seventh in NFL in 2013). Defensive Player to Watch The target is always on Patrick Willis, but the focus will be even sharper in 2014, with NaVorro Bowman not returning from his ACL injury through the month of September, at least. Willis, one of the game’s best defensive players with seven straight Pro Bowl appearances and five first-team All-Pro honors in those same seven seasons, will see even his role change this season. First, Willis will take over Bowman’s “mike” position until he returns from injury. With Willis taking on more tight ends and running plays, expect his mentality to change more towards run-defense, even as he keeps that perfect pass-rush balance at his helm, as Bowman did so well. Linebackers Michael Wilhoite, who replaced an injured Willis in two games last year, and rookie Chris Borland will battle for Willis’ old “jack” position at training camp to start the season. 49ers Special Teams Longtime 49ers punter Andy Lee has seldom struggled in his NFL career, but in 2012, he saw his 49ers special teams peers all around him not deliver. That’s why San Francisco management went out and got kicker Phil Dawson. Since that time, the 49ers have become a top special teams unit once again, ranking seventh overall according to Football Outsiders in 2013, with Lee’s punt-and-coverage teams ranking second, Dawson’s kickand coverage teams ranking third and Dawson’s field-goal/extrapoint game rating fourth in the NFL. San Francisco’s own kick and punt return games, with six different returners, may have been a bit subpar, but the problems of 2012 appear gone for good. Prediction If the past three years are any indication, the 49ers will win a dozen times—give or take one—reach the NFC Championship game and then flip a coin to see whether they can beat fellow conference co-favorite and defending Super Bowl champion, Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers are 4-3 in three years against the Seahawks, and this season’s race looks just as tight. MICHAEL ZAGARIS/GETTY IMAGES SPORT Anquan Boldin


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