San Francisco 49ers

Linebackers likely will be key in 49ers’ playoff game against Carolina

The NFL has become a passer’s paradise in which quarterbacks are kings, passing records are torched each year and 40-point scores are commonplace.

But today’s NFC divisional playoff game between the 49ers and Panthers hearkens to a time when defenses dominated and running games were robust.

And 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis couldn’t be happier.

“Nothing against the teams that don’t run the ball, but I’m a linebacker,” Willis said. “I’ll cover when it’s called for. But I’d rather be coming downhill into the box. I like it when teams run the ball. I like it when they’re committed to doing that all game.”

Willis’ job in recent years has evolved into one in which he’s just as likely to be covering Jimmy Graham – the Saints’ prolific tight end who lines up as a wide receiver – 30 yards downfield as he is pursuing a running back at the line of scrimmage.

He’ll have to do some of that today, too. Panthers tight end Greg Olsen led the team this season with 73 catches for 816 yards and six touchdowns. But more often than not, Willis and teammate NaVorro Bowman will have a chance to do what they do best: squaring their shoulders to the line of scrimmage and knifing through blockers to get to the ballcarrier.

The Panthers and 49ers are two of just five teams this season that attempted more runs than passes. Carolina finished seventh in the league in rushing attempts.

“You’ve got to remember when you look at those stats, those include two-minute drives and third downs where passes go up a lot,” 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “So if you’re looking just at first and second down, they’re much more run than pass. And they’re very balanced in their running game. They’ve got a very intricate running game.”

That running game includes the quarterback. Cam Newton carried more than any other quarterback – 111 times – this season, and he finished second on the Panthers in rushing with 585 yards.

Newton and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will headline today’s game. But the best players on the field will be the ones trying to drag the quarterbacks down, the linebackers.

For the last six seasons, Willis has been considered the league’s top player at his position – a defender fast enough to keep pace with pass catchers and tough enough to handle the traditional duties of an inside linebacker. Now the league is filled with Willis clones.

Bowman, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, is one of them. So are the Panthers’ duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.

Willis made The Associated Press’ All-Pro team in each of his first six seasons. This year, he was replaced on the first team by Bowman and Kuechly.

Willis said he sees a resemblance when he looks at the Panthers’ defense.

“Thomas Davis – he’s kind of the me in that defense,” he said. “He gets out there and he covers, tackles, runs well. And Luke, he’s kind of like the Bo (Bowman) of the defense. He does a great job making plays and getting after the running backs.”

The Week 10 game between the teams turned into a linebacker’s dream. There was only one score in the second half – a 53-yard field goal by Carolina’s Graham Gano – and the Panthers won 10-9. The 19 combined points tied for the lowest score in the NFL this season.

The star of the game was Kuechly, a player 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh recruited at Stanford but who chose Boston College instead. He finished with a game-high 11 tackles, including a sack – one of a career-high six sacks of Kaepernick that game – and two tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Frank Gore said he couldn’t help but notice a similarity as he was dodging Kuechly’s tackles that day.

“He’s a beast. I compare him to our guys,” the 49ers running back said. “He’s a top guy at his position, too. I respect him. He’s fast, he can read and get to the ball – he’s fast. Fast. Big. Fast. He’s got it all. I’ll be ready for him (today).”

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