The 49ers were arguably the most surprising team in 2011, and it was almost completely due to their defense. On the defensive line both Justin Smith and Ray McDonald improved, even though we had thought Smith’s play in 2010 was as good as it gets for 3-4 defensive ends. At linebacker, Patrick Willis continued to play at an All-Pro level, NaVorro Bowman showed he should be a great inside linebacker for years to come, while Aldon Smith was outstanding as a rookie pass rusher. At defensive back, an underachieving Carlos Rogers finally lived up to the hype of being a Top 10 draft pick.
Those players have been mentioned plenty by Pro Football Focus as well by as the rest of the media. What makes the 49ers defense even scarier is that they have strong starters at the other positions as well. One that especially stands out is left outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks. It was a long journey for Brooks to make it to the NFL, to the 49ers, and ultimately to the starting lineup in San Francisco. With so many star performances it became easy to overlook the impact he made, but Brooks made the plays the 49ers needed him to make.
Ahmad Brooks was drafted in the 2006 Supplemental Draft which cost the Cincinnati Bengals a third round pick the following year. He had injury concerns through high school and college, as well as character issues that saw him kicked off the Virginia team and led him to enter the draft. At the time, the Bengals were known as the team to take risks on players so that was a logical destination.
As a rookie he played middle linebacker and started five games, played in another six, and collected 21 tackles and 11 assists. The following year he lasted just over one game before suffering a season-ending groin injury. After just two seasons with the Bengals he was released, and signed by the 49ers. Brooks was limited to just a special teams role in 2008 and was expendable enough to get released for a few days just to get re-signed.
After not having a spot with the defense the previous two years, in 2009 Brooks was made useful as the third outside linebacker behind Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson. During the year he saw the field for 262 snaps; 184 of them on passing downs. He had six sacks in that time, which was very high considering he had just 15 total pressures.
The following year the 49ers decided to rotate their outside linebackers in and out more often. Both Ahmad Brooks and fourth outside linebacker Travis LaBoy saw an increase in snaps while the two starters were rested more often. LaBoy was a better pass rusher, as both players had five sacks and five hits on the year, but LaBoy had more hurries and he did it on 31 fewer rushes. During the offseason, both Lawson and LaBoy were lost in free agency and, though San Francisco added Aldon Smith, Brooks would finally move to the front of the line and became an every-down linebacker for the 2011 season.
Brooks: The Pass Rusher
It is easy to be overlooked as a pass rusher when the man opposite of you had 17 sacks, and the interior pass rushers had nine each. However, just because three other players on the 49ers were better pass rushers doesn’t mean that Ahmad Brooks wasn’t an asset in the pass game. In 2011, Brooks brought pressure on 10.3% of his pass rushes which is pretty good. His problem was that he was only able to convert 12.3% of his pressures into sacks, where 3-4 outside linebackers typically convert 18.0%. Therefore, he did a good job at disrupting the quarterback throughout the season, but was only able to sack him seven times.
While some pass rushers see one or two games where they got a large portion of their pressures from, Brooks was consistent throughout the year; getting a few pressures each game. In nine of his games during the 2011 season, he had between four and six overall pressures. In thirteen games he had either one or two quarterback knockdowns. There were only two games where he had less than two pressures, and they were against the Ravens and Steelers.
Brooks: The Run Stuffer
Brooks was rarely a liability in the run game, and in a few games Brooks had a strong positive impact. Brooks had the fewest missed tackles per snap of all 3-4 outside linebackers with 900 or more snaps. He only had one game with a run defense rating below -1.0, and that was against the Giants at the end of the season.
While he rarely has a bad game, he’s also had a few games where he shined. Against the Eagles and Lions early in the season, Brooks got the best of their right tackles to make three tackles for short gains or losses. On other plays in those two games the runner went somewhere to the left of the right tackle, and Brooks was able to disrupt the play. In those two games, Brooks did not receive a single negative grade in the run game on any play.
Possibly Brooks’ biggest play of the season came at a time when the 49ers needed it most. In the fourth quarter in the playoffs against the Saints, the 49ers were up by six. The Saints had the ball with 27 yards to go for a touchdown, and 10 for a first down. Brooks shed the block of Pat McQuistan who lined up at tight end to get into the backfield. Chris Ivory originally wanted to run inside, but instead tried to bounce out. Once Ivory tried to change direction, he ran right into Brooks who tackled him for a 2-yard loss. This led the Saints to settle for a field goal on the drive to maintain the 49ers’ lead and eventual victory.
A Super Bowl Run?
The 49ers took an “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” approach to their defense this offseason. The 14 players with at least 300 snaps are all returning, and the biggest addition was a fifth-round draft pick. We should see a lot more of the same out of this defense, which could once again put them in position for a deep playoff run.
One of the many things that distinguishes football from other sports is just how much of a team function it is. The 49ers’ defense is one of the units where everyone can play well, and they have an offseason to continue to gel even more. Brooks isn’t as big of a star on the defense as others, but he plays a necessary role, and he does it well. While the 49ers do need players like Patrick Willis to play like he has to get to the Super Bowl, they also need players like Ahmad Brooks to continue playing like a superstar even if he isn’t getting the recognition.