They may be teammates, but the 49ers linebackers are competitors, too.
As they sit in their meeting room with position coach Jim Leavitt, players like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Larry Grant like to keep each other on their toes.
“We feed off each other; we learn a lot from each other,” Grant said. “The best thing is that us three – we’re our hardest critics. Every day in the meeting rooms, we talk a lot of stuff to each other to make sure we’re going to be better the next day. It’s a big competition between everybody in our linebacker room, not just NaVorro Bowman, Pat and me.”
While Willis and Bowman established themselves as arguably the best inside linebackers in the game last year, with each claiming a first-team All-Pro selection, Grant proved that he could play at a starter’s level. He played in the better part of four games down the stretch in place of an injured Willis – starting three of them – in addition to his valuable presence on the 49ers special teams units.
“I’ve had a chance to be around a lot of good guys and a lot of great players at this position,” said Grant, who enters his fourth NFL season. “But by far, this is the best linebacking core I’ve ever been around.”
What’s better? The linebackers are improving.
While Bowman earned words of praise from defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for his mental development, Grant singled out second-year player Aldon Smith as being the team’s most improved player on defense.
“Aldon has made leaps and bounds from where he was at this point last year to where he is now,” Grant said. “He’s been doing a great job picking up on a lot of things that he wasn’t sure about last year during the preseason and even during the season. My hat’s off to Aldon and I’m pretty excited about what he’s going to do for us this year.”
As far as the third phase of the game, special teams, nobody had it better than the 49ers last year. Kicker David Akers, punter Andy Lee and long snapper Brian Jennings were all named to the Pro Bowl, while the coverage units helped the 49ers win the field position battle on a consistent basis.
With the addition of ace Rock Cartwright to an already accomplished group, Grant sees even more improvement for Coach Brad Seely’s special teams unit.
“Everybody sees it. Our special teams does a great job of getting to the ball and helping guys like Ted (Ginn Jr.) and Kyle (Williams) and LaMichael (James) get space to run,” Grant said. “We have improved leaps and bounds from where we were last year. Last year, it was a new system for everybody so we were just getting used to it. Now that we’re used to it, we’re putting so many different things together to make it even better.”a
But the 49ers aren’t resting on last year’s success. Defeats like last week’s in Houston prove that the steamrolling San Francisco defense can still reach another level.
“We know there’s always room for improvement,” Grant said. “Just looking back at the tape we had last year and the practices that we have now, there’s still so many areas that our team can improve together to make our defense one of the best in the league – if not the top in the league.”
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