SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — Just as the Seattle Seahawks take pride in having three Pro Bowl selections among their four-man secondary, the San Francisco 49ers take pride — and comfort — in three of their four starting linebackers earning the honor.
“I definitely think it’s the best linebacker corps in the league,” 49ers reserve linebacker Dan Skuta said. “Obviously, we have three Pro Bowlers — and any other time, Aldon (Smith) would be going, too.”
The honored linebackers are NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Patrick Willis. Rounding out the quartet is Smith, who produced 34 tackles and 8.5 sacks despite missing five games to receive treatment for substance abuse. Together they have made believers of every opponent in the 49ers’ path. In postseason wins at Green Bay and Carolina, the unit combined for seven sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.
Next up are the Seahawks on Sunday for the right to go on to the Super Bowl. After two regular-season meetings each year with their NFC West rival, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll
understands the looming challenge.
“Their four linebackers are really fantastic,” he said. “Each guy has got special dimensions, and they’re athletic. They play with great energy, they’re natural football players, and they all can do stuff.
“That’s really the difficulty dealing with (the 49ers) is those four guys, and they’re all over the place. They mix them and move them around. They’re aggressive, they cover, they blitz, and they can do everything. ... That’s really the heart of the problem. It’s those four guys.”
San Francisco’s linebackers once again made their mark in the game that pushed the Niners through to Seattle: this past Sunday’s 23-10 win over the Panthers.
From their inside backer positions, Bowman and Willis evenly divided 22 tackles. Bowman got a sack. Willis got an interception. Brooks, who missed Wednesday practice because of illness, capped a goal-line stand by stopping quarterback Cam Newton.
“We pride on keeping teams out of the end zone,” Bowman said. “... We can hold up at the goal line four downs in a row; that just lets you know that we’re here to play and it’s going to be a long day.”
After limiting Carolina offensive weapons, including Newton and receiver Steve Smith, to a touchdown and field goal last weekend, the Niners’ backers now are turning their attention to the challenges presented by the power of running back Marshawn Lynch, complemented by the elusive unpredictability of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
“They’ve got some good skill players, Marshawn being one of those guys at the running back position,” Willis said. “He runs the ball really hard — one of the best running backs in the National Football League. And then you have Russell Wilson, who’s done everything he’s done this year and has gotten even better than he was last year.
“So we understand they love to run the ball. Marshawn is a big part of that. But also Russell Wilson, he can scramble and is about to throw the ball as well. So, we’ve just got to play a complete game.”
If Wilson gives the San Francisco linebackers plenty to think about, the reverse is also true.
“I have a lot of respect for how they play the game and how physical and how fast they are,” Wilson said. “They’re very intelligent in how they play the game, too. We’re going to have to find ways to attack them and take advantage of their weaknesses. They don’t have too many, so you have to play a great football game.”