Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks has never been more important to the 49ers' defense than he is right now.
In recent seasons, Brooks had someone established and productive on the other side of the 49ers' defense – whether that player was Parys Haralson, Aldon Smith or Aaron Lynch.
But while Lynch serves the second of a four-game suspension to open the season, Brooks appears to be the focal point of the 49ers' defense entering Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers.
"I think Ahmad's a unique combination of size and speed," 49ers coach Chip Kelly said. "Usually, you don't have guys that are that big, 265-270 pounds that are that athletic. That's one of the first things that struck us when we got here is watching Ahmad run around.
"So you see that athleticism and there's not many guys that are 265-270 pounds that run as well as him and I think that's what really kind of helps us do a lot of different things with him. We can deploy him in a lot of different ways because of his athleticism."
Brooks picked up a sack on Monday night, as the 49ers pitched a shutout in a 28-0 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil had Brooks line up in a variety of positions – rushing the quarterback from the edge on both sides, as well as coming from the middle.
"It's all about the defense," Brooks said. "Whatever Jim wants, I'm here to be the best teammate I can be, the best football player I can be. If he feels like I'm versatile enough to be able to play those different positions, then I'm all for it as long as I'm winning."
Brooks, 32, recorded a career-high 8.5 sacks in 2013. After collecting 12.5 sacks the past two seasons in 27 games, Brooks could be in a position to approach or surpass his high marks as O'Neil appears determined to move him around to find the best matchups.
The 49ers enter their game against the Panthers as two-touchdown underdogs, but Brooks believes the 49ers' defense put enough good stuff on film to fully get the attention of the defending NFC champions.
"It's another test for us," Brooks said. "Last week was a good start for us. It was a confidence booster for us. It's a promising defense. It's a promising year for us. We're excited. We have a challenge ahead of us, but we're ready for the challenge.
"They see it on film, I'm pretty sure. It's a scary sight for them to see, for them to watch on tape. They're probably like, ‘Oh, man, these guys are running to the ball.' They're going to have to be on their P's and Q's, man."