|49ers Linebacking Corps 2012|
For the past few seasons, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Green Bay and Chicago have been among the few teams that feature savvy, versatile linebacking corps. In 2012 however, whether due to injury, free agency or retirement, each of those four are missing at least one of those components, allowing a handful of other teams to qualify as among the NFL's top linebacking corps.
San Francisco 49ers
The defending NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers came out of nowhere last season to become one of the league's top teams, especially on defense. One of the main factors in their new-found dominance is a quartet of LBs (Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith) who are arguably the best unit in the NFL. Willis and Bowman both made the First-Team All-Pro and totaled 240 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and 20 pass deflections between them in 2011. Smith, a rookie last season, had 14 sacks and forced 2 fumbles, while Brooks collected 7 sacks and a forced fumble. The foursome helped the 49ers to second in the league in points allowed (14.3 per game), tied for first in takeaways (38) and their 77.3 yards per game allowed rushing topped the NFL. It certainly wasn't the offense that took the 'Niners to the NFC title game.
Even though five-time Pro Bowler (and 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year) Terrell Suggs may be sidelined for the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon and inspirational leader Ray Lewis is 37, the Baltimore Ravens LB corps is still one of the league's most dominating. As with all great units, when one component breaks down, there's a replacement to step in. Jameel McClain returns next to Lewis at an inside slot, while rookie Courtney Upshaw is slated for an outside berth. Paul Kruger slides into Suggs' place, and though he certainly isn't the fiery competitor Suggs was, he may be a better pass rusher. Ray Lewis has a way of getting teammates to perform beyond their capabilities and this season should be no different.
Forced by injuries to mix-and-match in 2011, the Carolina Panthers are hoping the return of Jon Beason (Achilles) and Thomas Davis (knee), combined with the debut of rookie Luke Kuechly will have an immediate impact in turning Carolina's defense around. Kuechly has all the skills and intangibles that defensive coordinators drool over, and he could very well become one of the NFL's best very quickly. Beason's absence in 2011 severely limited the Panther's aggressiveness and consistency, while James Anderson, who set a team record for tackles last season, also returns.
Surrounded by question marks both in front of them and behind, the Dallas Cowboys LB corps will be counted on to keep things under control until the DL and secondary comes around. Racking up 19.5 sacks from his outside position, DeMarcus Ware is without a doubt one of the league's premier pass rushers. On the other side, Anthony Spencer doesn't get the acclaim that Ware receives, but he's steady and has greatly improved his pass coverage. On the inside, former Penn State teammates Sean Lee and Dan Connor comprise a highly intelligent, hard-hitting duo that should help improve the Cowboy's run defense, a glaring weakness in 2011.
With a nice blend of experience (London Fletcher), youth (Ryan Kerrigan) and freakish athleticism (Brian Orakpo), the Washington Redskins LB unit is rapidly gaining respect around the NFL. Fletcher provides leadership (as well as a team-leading 166 tackles in 2011), while Kerrigan's rookie campaign produced 7.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and 64 tackles. Orakpo commands double-teams with his elite combination of speed and strength, while the group's least-known member, Perry Riley, improved by leaps and bounds in his second season. Riley should benefit from being "under the radar" due to the talent around him.
Age has a way of making mere mortals of us all, and in the Windy City, the always fearsome Bears LB corps may be a perfect example. Future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher (34) and possible HOFer Lance Briggs (31) aren't young bucks any longer, but it would be difficult to find two warriors with bigger hearts and resolve than the long-time Bear duo. Linebackers in Chicago are expected to be tough, resilient and hard-hitting, and Urlacher and Briggs are templates for those characteristics. Urlacher has been slowed by nagging preseason injuries, but vows to be on the field on opening day. He has unquestionably lost some quickness, but who's foolish enough to write him off? Nick Roach is an up-and-coming young LB who has shown classic Bears football qualities, while free agent pickup Geno Hayes is a solid, reliable veteran who won't dazzle but who also won't be out of place. Don't write this unit off just yet.