|Linebackers lead way for 49ers into NFC title game|
|Tuesday, January 14, 2014 9:19 PM|
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — From the pick six that closed Candlestick to a pair of goal-line stands in Carolina, it seems like whenever San Francisco needs a big play from its defense one of the 49ers’ decorated linebackers steps up.
With Pro Bowlers NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks playing alongside talented pass rusher Aldon Smith on coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense, the Niners’ version of the fearsome foursome has played a major part in their advancement to the NFC title game on Sunday night in Seattle.
Bowman, Willis, Brooks and Smith have combined for seven sacks, one forced fumble and an interception in road playoff wins in Green Bay and Carolina that set up the showdown with the Seahawks with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
“We just try to stay together and lead this defense,” Bowman said. “We all can do special things that a lot of guys can’t do in this league. Vic’s just done a great job drawing up the right plays and what he wants us to do out there. We’re blessed to have all four of us on the same page.”
What makes this unit so effective is how well they work together. Smith and Brooks are elite pass rushers, able to chase down quarterbacks with their speed and overpower blockers with their strength.
Willis and Bowman are the do-everything inside backers, who plug holes against the run, blitz when needed and chase running backs and tight ends in coverage.
While Willis came into the year as the most decorated of the bunch as a 5-time All-Pro and Smith the most feared with 33½ sacks his first two seasons, it is Bowman who has led the group this season when the Niners needed it most.
Smith missed five games to receive substance abuse treatment and Willis showed a few signs of slowing down, turning Bowman into the on-field leader of the group.
He was named first-team All-Pro for the third straight season and has been mentioned as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year after recording a career-high five sacks, two interceptions, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. That earned him the ultimate praise from Willis.
“I said, ‘Man, you’re having the kind of year that linebackers want to have. I know you’re most certainly having the kind of year that I would love to have’,” Willis said. “He’s my brother. I’m always going to be his biggest fan. He’s my teammate. I’m just glad to see him do well. When one of us does well, we all do well. That’s how we think as a team.”
The crowning moment of Bowman’s year came in the regular-season home finale against Atlanta. With the 49ers in danger of losing the final scheduled game at Candlestick Park and having their playoff status put in doubt, Bowman delivered one of the most impressive plays of the season.
It started with him blitzing up the middle against Matt Ryan. But after getting the center to commit, Bowman retreated and was in perfect position when Tramaine Brock broke up a slant pass to Harry Douglas. Bowman grabbed the ball out of the air and ran 89 yards for the touchdown that sealed the 34-24 victory and clinched the playoffs for the Niners.
“He just comes up big all the time,” defensive lineman Ray McDonald said. “It’s paying off for him because he’s a hard-working guy, he’s always on top of his game.”
Bowman was at it again in Sunday’s 23-10 win over Carolina, fighting off two blockers before tackling Cam Newton at the 1 late in the second quarter. After a sack by Brooks and another goal-line stop by Bowman, the Panthers had to settle for a field goal.
San Francisco drove for the go-ahead score in the closing seconds of the half and never trailed again. That was the second impressive goal-line stand as Brooks stopped Newton on fourth down from the 1 earlier in the second quarter.
Back-to-back sacks by Bowman and Brooks knocked the Panthers out of field goal range in the closing minutes of the third quarter in what proved to be their last chance to stay in the game.
Throw in an interception earlier in the game by Willis that set up a field goal, and it was a dominating day.
“We take pride on keeping teams out of the end zone,” Bowman added. “They’re going to make big plays, they’re NFL players, too. But if we can hold up at the goal line four downs in a row that lets you know we’re here to play and it’s going to be a long day.”
Harbaugh leads 49ers back to NFC championship: Jim Harbaugh pirouetted in frustration following a personal foul on Dan Skuta. He got hit with his own unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing following a catch by Vernon Davis that went to review before being ruled a touchdown.
And that was just last Sunday.
Harbaugh has been at his emotional best — or, to some, worst — with his cartoon-like faces and quirky sideline antics in leading San Francisco back to the NFC championship game for the third time in as many years since taking over as 49ers head coach in January 2011. On Davis’ TD during Sunday’s 23-10 win at Carolina, Harbaugh ran well onto the field during the play.
“I think Harbaugh gets away with murder myself,” former Seahawks coach and ex-49ers assistant Mike Holmgren said. “If I ever did that, it would be a penalty.”
Harbaugh should be as charged up as ever come Sunday, when he faces off once more against the rival Seattle Seahawks in an NFC championship game featuring that familiar coaching sideshow with Pete Carroll. This time, there’s a Super Bowl berth on the line.
But if you ask Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?” is so five years ago. Enough already, he insists, keep it about the players.
“That might have been something four or five years ago,” Harbaugh replied. “But, I haven’t seen it as of late. And, it would be as irrelevant now as it would have been then when people made a bigger deal out of it. So, irrelevant, irrelevant.”
Sorry, not this week. There’s no avoiding such chatter. Harbaugh has to expect that infamous phrase to come up often.
It dates back to their college days coaching in the Pac-10 Conference. In 2009, Harbaugh and No. 25 Stanford ran up the score on 11th-ranked USC in a surprising 55-21 rout, even attempting a 2-point conversion with the game way out of reach — prompting Carroll’s infamous “What’s your deal?” when they met afterward at midfield.
Whatever their past or perceived differences, Harbaugh knows what to expect every time a Carroll-coached team takes the field.
The Seahawks ended San Francisco’s 2-year reign as NFC West champion.
“It’s hard to get to this position,” Harbaugh said. “Talking about a year of preparation and planning and offseason and training camp and games. And they did it better than anybody did it this entire season. So, a great task, great challenge ahead of us.”
The 49ers have already accomplished plenty this postseason by winning in the bitter cold of Green Bay and at Carolina. Harbaugh is the first coach in the Super Bowl era to reach the NFC championship in each of his first three years.
Place kicker Phil Dawson wanted to be part of the winning vibe after 14 mostly disappointing years with Cleveland. Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey left Kansas City to join a team with Harbaugh at the helm.
Even if Dorsey’s first impressions of the coach left him shaking his head.
“I noticed what everybody else noticed: a coach going crazy on the sideline having fun,” Dorsey recalled. “Always pumped up and always getting his team hyped. He works hard, even now being on the inside seeing him every day and how he goes about doing his job, the enthusiasm that he has and the motivational stuff that he has, the knowledge that he has. He’s a great coach.”
Dawson appreciates how Harbaugh takes chances in the kicking game based on his trust in the veteran — and it certainly didn’t hurt that Dawson converted a franchise-record 27 straight field goals until the streak ended in the regular-season finale at Arizona.
The 50-year-old Harbaugh, a 15-year NFL quarterback himself, regularly moves around the team plane to visit with players about football and life. He shares meals with rookies and veterans alike on occasion in the team cafeteria.
“He’s the kind of coach you want to win for,” Dawson added. “There’s a special satisfaction with having a relationship with the head coach. Being a place kicker, on a lot of teams the head coach never even speaks to the kicker. He’s around, he gets it, he’s been there. He’s sat in those seats. I think it’s probably one of the biggest reasons he’s successful is his ability to communicate with the guys and relate to them on their level and be able to instill whatever it is he’s trying to instill in a way that guys will receive it.”
Away from coaching, Holmgren in Seattle’s corner
SEATTLE — Holmgren is now one of the intruders.
After so many seasons of trying to insulate his teams from the noise on the outside and shield players from nosey media, he now finds himself on the other side. He may be a coach with Hall-of-Fame credentials but he’s simply a fan, observer and part-time member of the media when it comes to Sunday’s NFC championship game between Seattle and San Francisco, two franchises he knows quite well.
“It is different. Very different. I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to enjoy every moment of it. When you’re in it, you would like to say you’re enjoying it but you’re nervous about everything. It’s exciting and that’s what you coach for and all of that, but it’s a different perspective for me and I’m looking forward to the excitement of it all,” Holmgren said this week. “I must admit, now, when I was coaching, maybe because I never got out of the building very much during the week, you’re aware of the fans and the excitement in the city but now you’re really aware.”
Holmgren knows something about playing in the postseason. In six seasons as an assistant coach in San Francisco and 17 overall seasons as a head coach in Green Bay (seven) and Seattle (10), Holmgren coached seven times in NFC championship games, winning five.
And while his ties to the Bay Area are strong, from growing up in San Francisco and working as a high school coach in the area to serving as an assistant for the 49ers, Holmgren said he’s firmly in the corner of the Seahawks going into Sunday’s game.
“Well, I’m pulling for the Seahawks but I’m happy the 49ers are in because I think they are the two best teams and that’s the best game,” Holmgren said. “A couple of my colleagues at the radio station, I’m going to have to talk them off the ledge this week but I think it’s the best game and the teams know each other. There’s a lot of good stories from this game. It’s a good week.”
This season is the second time Holmgren has not been associated with the NFL in either a coaching or front-office capacity since 1985, when he was an assistant coach at BYU. After his coaching career with Seattle ended following the 2008 season, Holmgren spent the 2009 season out of football before becoming president of the Cleveland Browns for a brief stint.
This year, Holmgren has found himself on the media side of things, serving as a regular guest and sometimes interviewer on Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle. Last week, Holmgren arranged an interview with New Orleans coach Sean Payton two days before the NFC divisional playoff game. He hasn’t been shy about sharing opinions and has done shows from the Seahawks facility.
Holmgren still has connections in the Seahawks building with many of the staff and a couple of players that have remained on Pete Carroll’s roster. He’s had a chance to attend practices on occasion and developed a relationship with a few new players, including All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
“When I watched him play in the beginning, I didn’t know him, and I didn’t like some of the things he did, quite honestly. Great football player but all that other stuff,” Holmgren said. “Then I was over there and had a sandwich with him, had lunch with him one day and I got a chance to meet him, talk to him. I’m one of his biggest fans, he’s a great kid.”
Now 65, Holmgren finds the setting when he attends a Seahawks practice a little odd compared to the way he ran things, between the music blaring and players sometimes dancing. But he has great respect for what Carroll has accomplished in rebuilding the Seahawks and getting them to this point.
“It looks like they have more fun at practice than my teams did, quite honestly,” Holmgren added. “I go to practice and the music is going, they’re jumping around, they’re dancing, they just do stuff. I thought if I ever saw that happening they’re not concentrating on what I want them to concentrate on.”