Season preview positional analysis: LBs

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with keys to the season for each unit, player to watch, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Linebackers

The stars of the 3-4 defensive system typically reside at linebacker.

And, lo and behold, the 49ers now have some true stars at the position. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis, the NFL's leading tackler in 2007, was named first-team All-Pro and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after his auspicious debut season. And now the 49ers have two-time All-Pro Takeo Spikes lining up next to him after signing the veteran in August.

What the 49ers need now is to get their outside linebackers up to speed. The return of 2006 first-round draft pick Manny Lawson should help. Lawson was headed toward a breakout year in 2007 before his season was abruptly cut short by a knee injury. If Lawson returns in full force and the 49ers can get production from their other outside position, this could be one of the NFL's best 3-4 linebacker units.


KEYS TO THE SEASON

Get out of Willis' way:
Patrick Willis has the potential to be an all-time great, and the 49ers have designed their defensive system to allow him to flow to the football and make plays. The players around Willis need to remain assignment-true and allow Willis to do the things he does. And now, with more light on him, Willis must continue to play at the high level he displayed last season.

Get to the quarterback: San Francisco's edge rushers at outside linebacker were a huge disappointment in 2007, and they must do better this season for the defense to click. After Tully Banta-Cain's weak output of 3.5 sacks last year in his 49ers debut, several others will be given an opportunity on passing downs at right outside linebacker, where hybrid end/linebacker Justin Smith will see a lot of action.

Play within the defense: The 49ers will be asking a lot from their linebacker unit as they continually flip-flop their front from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and ask their linebackers to do different things on virtually every down. This will lead to the potential for blown assignments, which this unit must keep to a minimum.

The bottom line: With the addition of Spikes and late arrival Ahmad Brooks to bolster the inside and Justin Smith complementing this unit on the outside, the 49ers are considerably improved over last season, and that doesn't even take into account the return of Lawson, who played in just two games last year.


PLAYER TO WATCH/Patrick Willis

It's difficult to keep your eyes off Patrick Willis when the San Francisco defense is on the field. He is that special of a player. With a nose for the football, great instincts and the speed to get to the ball wherever it may go, Willis is a veritable tackling machine who also possesses great technique once he engages a ball-carrier. He exploded upon the NFL scene last year after the 49ers selected him with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 draft, leading the league with 174 tackles - 33 more than Denver's D.J. Williams, who finished second in the NFL in that category. According to San Francisco coaches' review of game films, Willis recorded a franchise-record 226 tackles. Willis has returned this year not only eager to pick up where he left off last season, but also to become more of a vocal team leader, a role that seems to fit his stoic demeanor and sincere style well. This is one young star the 49ers don't have to worry about and are fortunate to have.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starters for season opener:
LOLB Manny Lawson, LILB Jeff Ulbrich, RILB Patrick Willis, ROLB Parys Haralson/HYBRID Justin Smith
Reserves: OLB Tully Banta-Cain, OLB Roderick Green, ILB Takeo Spikes, ILB Ahmad Brooks
Key new arrivals: Takeo Spikes, Ahmad Brooks
Key departures: Derek Smith, Brandon Moore
Linebackers coaches: Mike Singletary, fourth year with 49ers, sixth year of NFL experience; Jason Tarver, eighth year with 49ers (fourth as OLB coach), eighth year of NFL experience

Strengths: Productive, All-Pro-caliber inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes. A dynamic and versatile outside presence in Manny Lawson. Several role players with potential to contribute at multiple positions. Solid depth throughout unit.

Weaknesses: The 49ers still do not have a proven force as a pass rusher on the outside, a glaring weakness on this team.

Fact check: Patrick Willis was the only rookie in the NFL last season to play every defensive snap for his team. He was one of only three rookies in the league to play every snap during the season, along with teammate offensive tackle Joe Staley and Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas.

Vital stat I: 15: Games in 2007 during which Patrick Willis recorded double-digit totals in tackles.

Vital stat II: 9: Games in 2007 during which Patrick Willis recorded 15 or more tackles, including three games of 20 or more.



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