In the San Francisco 49ers' 35-11 win over the St. Louis Rams Thursday, September 26, NaVorro Bowman showed what many have thought for a while now, but refused to utter out loud for fear of public ridicule: He has surpassed his own teammate, Patrick Willis, as the best middle linebacker in the NFL.
While it might seem blasphemous to utter those words, the proof is in the pudding. Bowman has outperformed Willis in every facet of the game.
With Willis out of action on Thursday night and the 49ers playing in what many believed to be a must-win situation, Bowman came up huge, putting together what might have been the best defensive performance of this young NFL season.
With Aldon Smith also out of the equation, the 49ers defense looked to be in a world of trouble. They had been outscored, 56-10, in their two previous games, and that was with the aforementioned Willis and Smith.
Fortunately for the 49ers, they employ the services of Bowman, who harnessed both his inner-Willis and Smith in this game.
While his six tackles were the least he’s had all season, I’m sure that can be forgiven due to the rise of his responsibilities. With Smith out, someone had to put pressure on Sam Bradford, and put pressure is just what Bowman did. He was constantly in the backfield and came away from this game with two sacks.
If that wasn’t enough, he also forced a fumble and defended one of Bradford’s 41 passes. Quite simply, he was everywhere Thursday night.
Now, it’s obviously silly to make a claim as bold as this based off one fantastic game. That’s the thing, however, it hasn’t been just one game.
Over the last two seasons, Bowman has taken over the roll that made Willis the consensus No. 1 linebacker in the NFL, ferociously plugging up holes and beating back running backs at the line of scrimmage. A quick look at their tackle numbers from the last two seasons is evidence of this, as Bowman led Willis by a comfortable margin, 291 to 217.
The stellar tackle numbers don’t tell the whole story of Bowman’s value, though. After all, Willis used to reign supreme in this category as well before the 49ers granted him more responsibility of the defense.
It is the way that Bowman has taken over the enforcer role from Willis that has been so impressive. Willis used to be the surest tackler in the league; that distinction now belongs to Bowman. Whether it be a big, bruising fullback or a small, fleet-footed tailback, we know he’s going down if Bowman is in the vicinity.
That’s the type of confidence his abilities have inspired, confidence that was reinforced when he acknowledged his role as a leader of the defense in his postgame press conference in the video seen here.
What’s even scarier for the league is that Bowman looks like he can improve even more. With Willis out, he took upon himself the duties normally assigned to No. 52. He shut down would-be receivers, controlled the line of scrimmage and wreaked havoc in the backfield.
And he did all those things better than Willis has all season. After the game, Bowman acknowledged that he had indeed raised his game in the absence of Willis, making known his desire to be the best, via Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com:
If a link gets taken out of the chain, someone has to step up. And being a veteran guy, you have to think like that if you want to be the best. I was just playing my game and doing what the coaches were calling upstairs and just executing. All the guys on the field did.
This is no slight on Willis; he’s merely switched places with Bowman on the linebacker pecking order, not fallen off a cliff. The fact remains, however, that to the naked eye, he’s faster than Willis, younger than Willis and possesses all the playmaking skills that have made his mentor so special.
Bowman has made a habit of making the most crucial plays at the most crucial of times. Whether it was deflecting Matt Ryan’s pass on fourth down in the final drive of the NFC Championship Game last season or coming up with a key sack or deflection in this game, Bowman has proven that he rises to the occasion.
That is the very definition of a star.
The rapid ascension of Bowman is what gives hope to the 49ers. Their defense has cracks, but Bowman is the glue that can hold it together until Jim Harbaugh and his staff find the perfect fix. We saw a glimpse of the carnage Bowman provides on his own. When Willis and Smith return, however, expect Bowman to raise his level of play to even higher levels.