SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Two are All-Pros. One was the runner-up for the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. The other just received a new $44.5 million, six-year contract extension.
Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks might not only be the biggest reason behind the San Francisco 49ers' defensive success last season, they form a close-knit linebacker group that has quickly become the NFL's new elite unit.
Call them the Fearsome Foursome.
"I think they're the best tandem of 3-4 linebackers in the league," Green Bay Packers quarterback and NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers said this week.
He should know.
When the Packers host the 49ers in the regular-season opener for both teams Sunday, the quarterback's eyes will likely be locked into the linebackers more than any other group on the field.
Willis and Bowman, the two All-Pros, combined for 235 tackles, 20 pass deflections, four sacks and four forced fumbles last season. Smith set a franchise-rookie record with 14 sacks to go with two forced fumbles. Brooks, who signed a new deal over the summer that will carry him through the 2017 season, had seven sacks and a forced fumble.
With the linebackers causing chaos, the 49ers led the league in rushing defense (77.2 yards per game), tied with the Packers in takeaways (38) and finished second only to the Pittsburgh Steelers (14.2) in points allowed per game (14.3) en route to the NFC championship game last season.
"There are certainly high expectations," Willis said, "knowing what we did last year."
The success has also bred a friendly but fierce competition throughout training camp and preseason practice.
Brooks and Smith are so competitive on the outside they started a game about who is best, often yelling out "left side" and "strong side" after big plays, mimicking the catch phrase from a scene in the movie "Remember the Titans." Even defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald have gotten in on the fun.
While the Smiths are often quieter and prefer to let their play do most of the talking, left-siders Brooks and McDonald can often be more rambunctious.
"There were guys that said, 'Left side! Strong side!'" Brooks said. "One day last year Ray was like, 'Left side!' And I was like, 'Strong side!' It stuck with us."
All four believe the playful antics have motivated the defense even more.
"It's not a rivalry, it's like a friendly competition," Aldon Smith said. "We want to see who can get more than the other. And just get 'em period."
The success also has created a bond that extends beyond the field.
Willis and Bowman are basically brothers. The two have pictures of each other and their families in each of their lockers, and Willis also is the godfather to Bowman's newborn twins.
Sometimes it's even hard to tell who is who between No. 52 (Willis) and No. 53 (Bowman) the way both move all over the field.
As roommates during training camp last year, the two learned more about each other and the similar obstacles they had to overcome on separate paths to NFL stardom.