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Why Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are special

Not many observers seemed to notice, but the San Francisco 49ers' defensive line didn't really have a great game last week against Green Bay. Despite a suspect Packers offensive line, the 49ers didn't get a lot of movement up front.

Two big reasons you didn't notice: San Francisco's inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman played to their usual excellent standard. Re-watching the game this week on Game Rewind, I noticed how Bowman and Willis stopped a Green Bay Packers drive cold to start the third quarter. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has spoken about how crucial this portion of the game was.

In back-to-back plays, Willis and Bowman showed what makes them special. So I may as well show you, using some coaches film provided by NFL Films. I love this job.

The first play is a 3-yard run by Packers running back DuJuan Harris. The 49ers are in a dime package; Willis isn't even on the field. Bowman lines up essentially as a middle linebacker. When Harris gets the ball, both Bowman and Harris are on the hash mark. Bowman immediately reads the play, slips an attempted block from Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith and beats Harris to the spot on the outside.

If you watch the 49ers enough, this play is routine. But that's why it's a great choice to show off what Bowman does. His speed and recognition are terrific. With six defensive backs in, this is his play to make. He makes it no problem. Now, to third down:

This play highlights how versatile the two players can be when used together. Willis and Bowman line up in their traditional inside spots, creeping towards the line of scrimmage before the snap. Bowman, who is between the hashmarks, immediately peels back after the snap to cover wide receiver Greg Jennings up the seam. When Aaron Rodgers looks to Jennings, Bowman provides little separation. (It will be fascinating to see what happens when Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez matches up against the linebackers this week.)

Meanwhile, Willis rushes the quarterback. He takes on Packers fullback John Kuhn heads up, tosses him aside and sacks Rodgers while rushing up the middle. The 49ers only rushed four defenders, so it's not even right to call this a blitz. The Packers just didn't know where the pressure was coming from. Bowman and Willis are both so versatile that they give the 49ers coaches a ton of options of how to attack an offense.

In two plays, the 49ers linebackers showed off their range, coverage ability, tackling, and rush skills. They stopped the Packers drive. Bowman and Willis were the keys, like they so are often are.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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