Can we all take a minute to turn our attentions away from this hotly-debated quarterback fluster and recognize the embarrassment of riches that the 49ers have at linebacker?
There’s Aldon Smith, the pass rusher that is on pace to shatter several sack records by year’s end. Patrick Willis certainly needs no introduction, and then there’s the suddenly well-paid Navorro Bowman, who looks like a carbon copy of Willis on the field (having two Willises is never a bad thing).
And then there’s Ahmad Brooks.
Brooks has found revelation since coming to the 49ers. He ran into some off-field trouble during his college days and early professional career, but Mike Singletary’s staff picked him up with the belief that he could change. He did just that, keeping his nose clean and playing as well at outside linebacker as the 49ers could have ever asked for.
His stellar 2011 season (50 tackles, 35 solo, 7 sacks) flew under the radar, almost as much as his 6-year, $44.5M contract extension. He was dubbed “the headless horseman” after his helmet-less sack on Andy Dalton last season, and it’s a nickname that suits him well if you consider the way he floats around the field, relentlessly decapitating his opponents.
Case in point: Sunday’s game in New Orleans. Not only was he solid in his usual assignments, but he executed some new wrinkles from Vic Fangio perfectly, resulting in one of his best games as a 49er.
To start, let’s fast forward to the fourth quarter. The Saints were down by 10 but marching with just under five minutes to go — a critical moment for the 49ers’ defense. The pre-snap set reveals one of those wrinkles I mentioned: Ahmad Brooks lined up as a middle linebacker. When the ball is snapped, Brooks splits the guard and tackle on a blitz, making easy work of the latter en route to Drew Brees.
The tackle assigned to stop Brooks is about to be beaten (which makes sense because he’s only using one hand to block). On the other end, Aldon Smith is about to treat the Saints’ third-string tackle like a screen door. Brees realized his pocket had gaping holes in it, but he steps in to avoid pressure a little too late.
There’s good old Ahmad, sacking Brees for television viewers everywhere (I know I’m not the only one that can’t handle watching that “One Direction” Pepsi commercial anymore).
Stopping the run is another area Brooks doesn’t get enough credit for. While Aldon Smith is busy being dipped by Darren Sproles (yeah, he still has some work to do on tackling in open space), Brooks rarely lets a ball carrier get by him, and his play on this Chris Ivory run is evidence.
When the ball is snapped, Brooks sets the edge by engaging with the right tackle and turning his body. This is something you learn in Pop Warner, and yet so many NFL defenders lack the discipline to do it.
You don’t need the end zone angle (which GameRewind didn’t provide for this game, unfortunately) to see the room Ivory had to run. The Saints’ blocking scheme worked brilliantly. Aldon Smith was behind the play and Willis was out of position after accounting for the fake end around. Still, there’s no one in a worse position to make a play than Brooks, who’s being double-teamed by a guard and a tackle way behind the play.
Somehow, Brooks shed the blocks and caught Ivory a few yards past the line of scrimmage. The running back ended up dragging him for a seven-yard gain, but the damage would have been much worse had Brooks not gotten free.
Brooks’s most impressive moment came in the waning moments of the second quarter. The Saints were up by seven and in business after a Kaepernick interception, but Fangio picked the perfect moment to introduce that same wrinkle. It was a move that changed the tone of this game completely.
Brooks lined up in the middle like he was going to blitz, but he ended up dropping back into coverage at the last moment. He lingered to the left, while Bowman played man coverage on the tight end.
Brees didn’t see Brooks playing rover, so he figured to have a sure-fire completion in Jimmy Graham. He loaded up and fired, but Brooks jumped underneath the route for an easy pick-six.
Alas, it would have been a perfect throw (had Brooks not been there). Brooks closed on the pass quickly, disguising his position until the ball was leaving Brees’ hand. It was at least a 10-point swing, and it gave the 49ers an upper hand they would never surrender.
Brees never noticed him, but then again, that’s been the theme of Brooks’s retribution. Once a player that stuck out like a sore thumb for his behavior off the field, he’s quietly standing out now for what he does on it.