49ers defense ‘might have something serious’

Patrick Willis bounced from one drill to the next, delivering

hits and asking questions all over the San Francisco 49ers’

practice field with a physical presence impossible to miss.

Even on offense.

The All-Pro linebacker and leader of one of the NFL’s best

defenses started studying all aspects of the game this offseason.

Willis has worked with linemen on both sides of the ball in

training camp, even spending time with wide receivers and tight

ends to learn how they adapt to coverages.

”I’m starting to understand more,” Willis said Saturday. ”I

feel like the more I understand, the more that it’s going to catch

up with my body. And once those two finally catch up with each

other, then we might have something serious.”

That’s a scary scenario for NFL offenses.

After a dominating defense carried the 49ers to the NFC

championship game, Willis and the rest of his teammates are

searching for new ways to sharpen a squad already considered among

football’s fiercest. All 11 starters are back from a young unit

that had two other All-Pros – linebacker NaVorro Bowman and

defensive tackle Justin Smith – and the runner-up for the AP

Defensive Rookie of the Year award in Aldon Smith.

The 49ers led the league in takeaways (38), rushing defense

(77.2 yards per game) and finished second only to the Pittsburgh

Steelers in points allowed per game (14.3). Pittsburgh averaged

14.2 points allowed.

Yet the only statistic defensive coordinator Vic Fangio reminds

his players about is the thrilling 36-32 victory in the divisional

round of the playoffs against the favored New Orleans Saints and

the heartbreaking 20-17 overtime loss to the eventual champion New

York Giants that followed.

”Everybody that’s on this defense that was here last year that

is still here, that was their first playoff victory in their

careers, all of them,” Fangio said. ”And it was their first trip

to the championship game for all of them. And I don’t think we have

anybody that’s going to be satisfied with just that. I think if

anything else it wets their appetite even a little bit more, and

they’re looking for more. So I don’t think complacency will be an

issue.”

The willingness for veterans to do new things is perhaps what

makes San Francisco special.

Willis dropped into coverage and chased tight ends more last

season in a sudden shift from the blitz-happy middle linebacker he

had been for his first five seasons. Along with Bowman, the pair

pushed and provoked blockers at will, not even allowing a rushing

touchdown until Week 16 against Seattle.

Through the first two days of training camp, Willis has been

spotted leaving linebackers drills to do everything from milking

defensive line coach Jim Tomsula for information to becoming coach

Jim Harbaugh’s blocking buddy as wide receivers and tight ends run

routes.

”I’m always asking them, `What made them do this? Or why’d you

do this?”’ Willis said. ”You can ask the offensive coaches. I’m

always trying to pick their brain like, `I know you said this, but

he didn’t do this. What made him do that?’ They have what they do

and why they do it. Those guys get pretty advanced.”

Willis is not the only one.

Justin Smith also showed a strong fervor, playing multiple

positions on the line and, at times, even shifting to outside

linebacker last season. Smith was selected to the All-Pro team at

two different positions – a first-team defensive tackle and a

second-team defensive end – setting the tone for a 49ers defense

that mixed and matched players to their potential.

”You kind of set a baseline,” said Smith, who had 105 tackles

and 7 1/2 sacks last season. ”Now our goal is to go out and start

at the baseline and hopefully to continue to get better. That’s why

you play the game, to always improve, and there’s always stuff to

work on. And hopefully try to win a championship.

This season, Aldon Smith is making one of the biggest

adjustments.

Converted from a defensive end out of Missouri, Smith played

almost exclusively on passing downs as an outside linebacker in San

Francisco’s 3-4 scheme last season. He piled up a franchise

rookie-record 14 sacks to go with two forced fumbles despite never

starting once.

Smith is expected to take over the starting role for veteran

Parys Haralson this season and play alongside Willis, Bowman and

Ahmad Brooks.

The carryover effect has cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell

Brown eager to do more blitzing. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner

are still expected to be the hard-hitting safeties, although even

they are taking on new zone coverages and formations. And Fangio,

while not about to release his schemes, is working on new wrinkles

to give opponents a fresh look.

All of it has 49ers players giddy to build a defensive

dynasty.

”You can see it out there,” Willis said. ”Last year, coming

into training camp we were just as eager to go and take on the

season not knowing what was ahead of us and the outcome. I feel

like we’re back out there in that same mode. We’re out here working

just as we were last year to be even better.”

NOTES: WR Michael Crabtree didn’t participate in the afternoon

practice. A 49ers spokesman said Crabtree was ”working through

something,” giving the typical Harbaugh line on injuries.

Crabtree, drafted 10th overall in 2009, missed all of training camp

his rookie season because of a lengthy contract holdout and has

missed every preseason game in his three years due to injuries. …

DT Demarcus Dobbs has been splitting time at TE in training camp.

Dobbs, who signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent out of

Georgia last year, said Harbaugh approached him in the offseason to

become the latest player to switch roles. ”It is tough,” Dobbs

said. ”You have two playbooks that you have to learn. You

flip-flop – one day defense, one day offense. So you constantly

have to be in your books. But that’s what we’re here for.” … The

49ers will hold their first practice in pads and do full-contact

drills Sunday.

Follow Antonio Gonzalez at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP