When veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes left the 49ers last summer to sign a free-agent deal with the San Diego Chargers, there were worries the San Francisco defense would be left with a huge hole to fill.
Spikes, a 13-year player who had served as a mentor to young, All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, finished second on the team (behind Willis) in tackles with 109, and was a vocal, respected leader on the team.
As the team’s player representative, he had been very involved in the NFL labor dispute and had kept teammates up to date on the latest news.
Going into a season with a new coaching staff, the Niners seemed certain to miss Spikes’ contributions on and off the field.
But sitting behind Spikes on the depth chart were a pair of young linebackers ready to compete for Spikes’ job, in Scott McKillop and NaVorro Bowman.
When Bowman did just that, winning the job in training camp, it proved to be a huge step forward for the Niners’ defense not only this past season, but likely for many seasons to come.
Bowman, in just his second year in the league, led the 49ers with 173 tackles in the regular season and was selected All-Pro, right alongside Willis, who now is playing the same mentor role to him that Spikes played to Willis.
The Bowman-Willis tandem now gives the 49ers perhaps the best pair of inside linebackers in the NFL, two big, strong and fast players who can sprint sideline to sideline, chase down running backs and rush the passer.
Willis, who now has been selected to five Pro Bowls in his first five seasons in the NFL, told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ron Kroichick last month that he thought it was important that he should help Bowman grow in his first year as a starter.
Willis told Kroichick that they often watch film together to break down opponents and analyze their own work.
Bowman, a third-round pick from Penn State, said he felt the pressure to replace Spikes and wanted “to definitely prove myself.”
He told ESPN’s Jim Rome recently that he learned much from Spikes his rookie season, and continues to learn from Willis.
“For me and Patrick to have the chance to be out there together this season, he’s done nothing but help me on the field. …
“We’re a team out there. Pat’s great – he’s been doing it for a long time – but as he says, he’s not perfect. We help each other out there, and it’s been working out for us. We don’t have egos. We’re glad to be playing next to each other.”
Willis feels the same way.
“We bonded really well,” Willis told the Chronicle. “Any time he’s had a question, he doesn’t mind asking me and vice versa. We’re in this together. We’re always looking for a way to help one another.”
For Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the Bowman-Willis duo is one thing set in stone heading into 2012.
Harbaugh told Matthew Barrows of the Sacramento Bee in October that the twosome can be tough for opponents to deal with.
“They’re very similar,” he said. “They’re very good. They’re very athletic. They’re very tough, and they make similar plays.”