NEW ORLEANS — The Associated Press All-Pro team, the one officially recognized by the NFL, is nothing like the Pro Bowl roster. The All-Pro team is the best of the best at every position, regardless of conference, chosen by a panel of 50 media members.
There are no reserves, no injury replacements, no players getting the “honor” after five other guys have declined to attend.
When the 2012 edition of the team was announced last month, six of the San Francisco 49ers’ 11 defensive starters were voted onto the first or second team, including all four of their linebackers.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has garnered a great deal of praise this week for the work he has done with his unit, but it’s pretty clear he has a lot more to work with than most coaches.
That quartet — inside backers Patrick Willis, 28, and NaVorro Bowman, 24, and outside backers Aldon Smith, 23, and Ahmad Brooks, 28 — is pretty young, and they know how to work together. They also know how good they are.
“What makes us dangerous is, our confidence is through the roof,” Bowman said. “Our work ethic is through the roof. Anything that we have to do in regards to the 49ers, we’re willing to do it.
“Some teams and coaches may not be on the same page; we’re all on the same page with our coach. We understand what he wants and what he’s trying to get accomplished every single week, and it’s been working for us.”
Fangio certainly knows talented linebacking corps. He was coach of the “Dome Patrol,” the Saints linebackers who played seven seasons together in the 1980s and ’90s: Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, and Pat Swilling.
This is the first season his 49ers group has started together. Smith played quite a bit as a rookie but was not a full-time starter.
Fangio isn’t quite ready to compare his current crop with the Dome Patrol, but he hopes they can all stay together for a few years, and then he can see how they measure up.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize what he has now.
“We have great linebackers, there’s no hiding that. They’re on the field all the time,” Fangio said. “Whether we’re in nickel or base, they stay out there. Those two outside linebackers become our ends in the nickel and our two inside linebackers stay in the game. They’re out there all the time.
“They’re really great players. They’re athletic. Our outside linebackers are athletic enough to play in passing situations. We feel fine about leaving them out there, matching them up against tight ends and even wide receivers at times. They allow us some flexibility.”
Smith, the seventh overall pick in 2011 out of Missouri, announced himself quickly, with 14 sacks in his first season despite playing about half of the defensive snaps.
This year, he rarely came off the field, as Fangio indicated. With 19½ sacks, he looked well on his way to setting the NFL season record, but he was held without a sack over the last three weeks of the regular season.
Brooks, the most veteran of the bunch with seven NFL seasons, had 6½ sacks this year and six pass breakups.
He spent the first two years of his career in Cincinnati, but was one of the final cuts coming out of training camp in 2008 and was claimed by the 49ers.
“Just to see how far he has come since the first time he came with us as part of this team has been amazing,” Willis said. “It’s been a big change of how he goes about his work and wanting to understand and show us how much it means to him and how much he cares, and showing that the previous things that might have held up his head didn’t matter anymore.
“He was with us to make a new home and to be better and to make this team a better defense. He’s playing outside linebacker the way it’s supposed to be played. To play linebacker in our defense, you can’t just be a ‘run around’ guy; you have to be a stout guy and be able to take on blocks and set the edges, and he does that for us week in and week out.”
Fangio needs good outside linebackers for his 3-4 system to be played at its best.
“We do, since it’s a key position in this defense,” he said. “It allows us to have flexibility and gives us a little bit more athleticism on the field.”
The rise of Bowman, a bit player his rookie year but a starter in 2011 and ’12, has meant that Willis isn’t asked to do quite as much. After averaging 115 tackles a year over his first four seasons, Willis totaled 88 this year and 82 the season before.
“I think we complement each other well due to the fact that we’re very similar in athletic ways,” Bowman said of his partnership with Willis. “We have a chance to disguise a lot of our defenses because we can do a lot of the same things. Continued...