Super Bowl XLVII sets stage for clash of elite linebackers
NEW ORLEANS -- If you play linebacker, used to play linebacker, or simply like to live the linebacker experience vicariously, you're going to love watching Super Bowl XLVII. A ton of talent at the position will patrol the field inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday night when the 49ers play the Ravens.
Look at San Francisco's linebacker corps. Three of its starters -- Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman -- were voted to the Pro Bowl this season. For Willis, it was his sixth such selection in six years. Smith notched 19.5 sacks in 2012, second in the league only to Houston's J.J. Watt (20.5).
Baltimore's side features Ray Lewis, who will likely play in the final game of his iconic 17-year career Sunday and would go from the Superdome straight into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio were it not for the mandatory five-year wait. Not to be overlooked are two of Lewis' sidekicks, Terrell Suggs and Dannell Ellerbe, a former rookie free agent who became a starter this season when Lewis went down with an injury and stayed in the lineup after Lewis returned.
I asked Smith, he of the 33.5 sacks in two years -- the most by any NFL player in his first two seasons -- about the quality of linebackers on these two teams and he smiled broadly. "You could say it's the Linebacker Bowl, right? There's going to be a lot of talent out there."
Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees agreed with Smith's assessment. "It's an exceptional group (of linebackers)," he said, "especially since we both play with four linebackers."
Both teams play a 3-4 as their base defense. But even when the 49ers morph into their nickel alignment -- a move they made often this season against such spread-the-field offenses as the Packers and Lions -- their four backers remain on the field. Willis and Bowman stay on the inside while Smith and Ahmad Brooks become ends in the sub package.
"We've got great linebackers, there's no hiding that," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "And they're on the field all the time."
San Francisco's four guys are as athletic as linebackers come, which is why they are equally adept in defending the pass as they are the run. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Willis, the first player in franchise history to be selected first- or second-team All-Pro in each of his first five seasons, is one of the most respected linebackers in the league. When SI.com conducted a preseason roundtable discussion with running backs Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner, all three players cited Willis as the best tackler in the league.
Smith (6-4, 258) set a 49ers rookie record with 14 sacks in 2011, when he played primarily as a pass rusher. This season, he evolved into an every-down player and wreaked even more havoc on quarterbacks. The 49ers players selected Smith as their most valuable player, but Ahmad Brooks, the fourth member of San Francisco's linebacker corps, believes Smith should have been the league's Defensive Player of the Year, an award which went to Watt.
"Oh, man, Aldon's good," Brooks (6-3, 259) said during Tuesday's Media Day session. "I'm not going to praise him too much because it will swell his head up; he doesn't need his head to get any bigger. But he's a good athlete."
Although Smith didn't have a sack in San Francisco's final three regular-season games or its two playoff victories over Green Bay and Atlanta, don't think that the quality of his play has diminished. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh set the record straight on that speculation Monday, when he acknowledged that Smith received a game ball after the Atlanta game, during which he applied consistent pressure on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and recovered a Ryan fumble in the third quarter to stop an Atlanta drive.
Willis said sometimes Smith will give him advice, even though Willis has four more years of NFL experience.
"I trust him no matter if he's two years in and I'm six years in," Willis said. "When a guy of his caliber can rush the way he can rush, he can give me advice all day and I'll listen. We're very grateful to have Aldon on our team."
As for Bowman (6-0, 242), all he did in his third NFL season is lead the 49ers in tackles (93 solo, 90 assists). In the playoff game against Atlanta, Bowman displayed his coverage ability when he broke up a fourth-down Ryan pass intended for Roddy White -- a wide receiver -- at the San Francisco 10 with a little more than a minute left in the game.
"I feel like we have the best linebackers corps in the NFL," Willis said. "I really do."
Of course, the Ravens would dispute that declaration, even though injuries at that position disrupted the flow of their defense this season. Both Suggs and Lewis missed long stretches of time, yet both remarkably came back from injuries that probably would have forced other players to miss the entire season. Suggs, a five-time Pro Bowl pick and the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, suffered a torn Achilles tendon during the offseason, yet he predicted he would be able to play by November. He actually underestimated himself. Suggs was back on the field on Oct. 21, less than five months after surgery.
Lewis tore his triceps during an Oct. 14 game against Dallas and missed the final 10 regular-season games. Even though a team doctor told him he was done for the season, Lewis made up his mind that he would come back. In fact, Lewis called Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and asked him to not put him on the injured reserve list. Lewis recalled his conversation with the doctor.
"I said, 'Doc, there's no way I'm going to be out for the year with just a torn triceps.' She was like, 'Ray, nobody has ever come back from this.' I said, 'Well, you know, nobody's ever been Ray Lewis, either."
After announcing late in the season that this would be his final ride in the NFL, Lewis returned for the postseason and has been more than just an emotional leader in the Ravens' playoff victories over Indianapolis, Denver (in two overtimes) and New England. Lewis and Suggs are back making plays and have helped restore the roar in the Ravens' defense.
"The great 'Mufasa,' we can't speak enough words about him," Suggs said, referring to Lewis' nickname from the movie The Lion King. "He's probably a shoe-in, first-ballot Hall of Famer. I'm lucky to get the opportunity to play in his last game with him."
Fangio knows how good Lewis and Suggs are. From 2006-09, he served on the Ravens' coaching staff as special assistant to the head coach and linebackers coach. He believes Baltimore's linebackers are on a par with his group in San Francisco.
"They're right there with them," he said. "They're the upper echelon of linebackers. I think our guys are, too."
And that's one thing that makes Super Bowl XLVII -- the Linebacker Bowl -- must-see TV. Just ask Lewis.
"If I'm a former linebacker, if I'm a linebacker at all," he said, "this is a heck of a game to watch."
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