49ers key to success: OLB Ahmad Brooks
Who would have known? Well, the team's new coaching staff, that's who. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio took a few looks at Brooks on game film from previous seasons and realized that Brooks could be the hard-charging edge rusher so necessary to making Fangio's system click.
So Fangio penciled in Brooks on the left side when drawing up his defense during the NFL lockout, and the 49ers made no real push to keep Lawson, a 2006 first-round draft pick who was supposed to be the pass-rushing force the 49ers needed at the position but never really became that as the regular starter at LOLB the past three seasons.
Brooks could always bring the heat. But could he be an all-around, every-down player at one of the most complex positions in Fangio's defense? The answer so far this summer has been a resounding yes.
Brooks started at LOLB for the first time as a 49er in last week's exhibition opener against the New Orleans Saints, and he looked every bit like he belonged there in all three phases of the position – rushing the passer, stopping the run, and falling back into coverage.
"He played very well in that first preseason game, and he's carried it over to this week in practice," Fangio said earlier this week. "We're really excited to have him with us and we've been very pleased with him so far. He's got a chance to have a very good season for us, and hopefully he'll keep progressing and improving. As he understands our defense, more and more each day, that improvement will happen naturally."
Brooks has looked like a natural at the position this summer after being shoe-horned into a situational role as an edge rusher by the team's previous coaching staff over the past two years. Brooks played mostly on passing downs, collecting six sacks in 2009 and five more last season, when he also recorded 33 tackles, his most in three seasons with the 49ers.
Given an opportunity to show if he could handle an expanded role, Brooks – who played middle linebacker all his football life until being transitioned to the edge two years ago – looked like a complete player who carries all the skills for the position during three weeks of training camp before excelling with a first-team defense that shut down their New Orleans counterparts early in the game before the Saints eventually rolled to a 24-3 victory behind the play of reserve units.
After the 49ers conducted their final full practice session of training camp on Thursday, coach Jim Harbaugh basically called Brooks' progression on defense as the highlight of camp.
"The first guy that jumps to mind is Ahmad Brooks," Harbaugh said when asked which players really stepped it up this summer. "He's having a heck of a camp, played extremely well in that (exhibition opener). At a very critical position, you talk about critical positions, the ability to rush the passer and drop into coverage. He's made several plays on balls, got us the ball on defense in our practice sessions. I've been pleased and just encouraged by his progress, and hope he just keeps right on coming at the rate he is."
The 49ers' success on defense this year could be counting on it. While Lawson was a solid sideline-to-sideline player, he just didn't provide the consistent pass-rushing heat the team needed at the position, and that may have impeded the overall effectiveness of the defense.
But Brooks has had no problem bringing it consistently this summer, looking like he has added another gear to his acceleration off the edge and another level to his game.
Brooks has had a string of impressive plays this week in camp, at one point tipping a pass at the line of scrimmage and then hauling in the ball for an athletic interception, his second in two days. He also blew past offensive lineman Chilo Rachal twice for sacks in a pass-rushing drill that pitted the right side of San Francisco's offensive line against the left side of the team's defensive front wall.
Brooks has done the same kind of thing throughout camp, convincing the team to keep exciting first-round draft pick Aldon Smith – another camp standout – on the right side, where he is pushing veteran holdover Parys Haralson for the starting job at ROLB.
Smith has the star potential that would fit in well on the left side, but Brooks has taken to the position so well that the team has been content to work in the rookie on the other side.
The 49ers still have not named official starters at any position, but Brooks would appear to have a job locked up with little more than three weeks remaining before the season opener.
"Yeah, if he keeps playing the way he played last week and keeps practicing the way he's practicing, then that's an eventuality right there," Fangio said.
And that eventuality marks Brooks as a key individual in the 49ers' quest for success this season.
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