The San Francisco 49ers probably have the most talented defense in the NFL, so it wasn’t hard to find five players that the New England Patriots need to watch closely on the 49ers defense. It was, however, difficult to actually narrow down the list to five players in particular.
1. CB Chris Culliver
I decided to go with my favorite underrated CB in the NFL in second-year star Chris Culliver, whose coverage ability has been so proficient that he completely deserves the nickname “Culliver’s Island”. It’s not the best vacation spot for wide receivers at all, and Culliver has put together a string of three excellent games to go with what has been an outstanding season. As a rookie, Culliver showed plenty of promise as a future lockdown corner, and it looks like that future was just one year away.
Culliver leads the 49ers with 11 passes defended and two interceptions, and he has been even better than Pro Bowl caliber veteran Carlos Rogers. He is, in my opinion, the anchor of one of the best defensive backfields in the NFL. In fact, it’s difficult to choose the true standout among the five solid players at the back end for San Francisco.
2. LB NaVorro Bowman
He may not be as vicious of an interior linebacker as Brandon Spikes is, but I would be naive and incredibly biased if I were to dub Spikes as the better player. NaVorro Bowman is arguably the best downhill run-stopping linebacker in the NFL, and he has been a revelation for this team ever since bursting onto the scene in 2011 when given the starting role that he wholly deserved.
3. LB Aldon Smith
For as great as Bowman is, Aldon Smith scares me more going into this matchup. The man has already hit the quarterback 24 times, and he’s going to be getting some shots in on Tom Brady too. What the Patriots need to do is limit his ability to make a truly game-changing play or sack, just like they did against J.J. Watt. Smith is going up against a nicked up Nate Solder at left tackle, and he seems incredibly motivated. That’s a scary proposition.
The 49ers don’t ask Smith to do much besides rush the passer, and you can hardly blame them due to Smith’s raw productivity as a pass rusher. He was ridiculously efficient as a rookie, and, like Culliver, he has taken things to new heights in his sophomore season in the league. 20 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Chew on- actually, shiver at- those numbers.
4. DE Justin Smith
This guy just embarrasses offensive linemen, and it’s a good thing the New England Patriots possess a huge amount of talent on the line. Those guys won’t be getting embarrassed by Justin Smith in this game, but he will certainly be a handful. It seems like he gets better as a run defender, and he’s still managed to hit the QB ten times this season as a 3-4 DE. Yes, their third-most effective pass rusher has ten QB hits.
5. LB Patrick Willis
One of the few linebackers in this league who could possibly cover Aaron Hernandez, Patrick Willis is the second leading tackler and playmaker on the team next to Bowman. However, Willis makes more of an impact on the game than Bowman, and that’s for the same reasons that Jerod Mayo has more of an impact on the Patriots than Spikes. It goes one step further than that too, because Willis’s coverage skills are as good as any down linebacker’s in the league. (I tend to discount sub-package LBs like Bobby Carpenter, but Willis probably covers as well as Carp.)
I don’t think he’ll be lined up against Hernandez often in this game, unless if the Pats use him in short yardage situations like they did against the Houston Texans. I don’t think that will be the case, but Willis will show his all-around skills in this game in some shape. He always does.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.