SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — From the pick six that closed Candlestick to a pair of goal-line stands in Carolina, it seems like whenever San Francisco needs a big play from its defense one of the 49ers' decorated linebackers steps up.
With Pro Bowlers NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks playing alongside talented pass rusher Aldon Smith on coordinator Vic Fangio's defense, the Niners' version of the fearsome foursome has played a major part in their advancement to the NFC title game on Sunday night in Seattle.
Bowman, Willis, Brooks and Smith have combined for seven sacks, one forced fumble and an interception in road playoff wins in Green Bay and Carolina that set up the showdown with the Seahawks with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
"We just try to stay together and lead this defense," Bowman said. "We all can do special things that a lot of guys can't do in this league. Vic's just done a great job drawing up the right plays and what he wants us to do out there. We're blessed to have all four of us on the same page."
What makes this unit so effective is how well they work together. Smith and Brooks are elite pass rushers, able to chase down quarterbacks with their speed and overpower blockers with their strength.
Willis and Bowman are the do-everything inside backers, who plug holes against the run, blitz when needed and chase running backs and tight ends in coverage.
While Willis came into the year as the most decorated of the bunch as a five-time All-Pro and Smith the most feared with 33½ sacks his first two seasons, it is Bowman who has led the group this season when the Niners needed it most.
Smith missed five games to receive substance abuse treatment and Willis showed a few signs of slowing down, turning Bowman into the on-field leader of the group.
He was named first-team All-Pro for the third straight season and has been mentioned as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year after recording a career-high five sacks, two interceptions, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. That earned him the ultimate praise from Willis.
"I said, 'Man, you're having the kind of year that linebackers want to have. I know you're most certainly having the kind of year that I would love to have,'" Willis said. "He's my brother. I'm always going to be his biggest fan. He's my teammate. I'm just glad to see him do well. When one of us does well, we all do well. That's how we think as a team."