Ever since he took over the starting job as an outside linebacker before the 2011 season, Brooks has quietly become one of the best at his position against the run and the pass. He’s also emerged as one of the league’s primetime performers in the clutch.
On Sunday, Brooks used a combination of film study, knowledge from his teammates and pure execution to close out in the biggest victory of the Harbaugh era, the 28-24 win against Atlanta in the NFC Championship.
San Francisco was clinging on to the 4-point lead with less than two minutes left as Matt Ryan and Falcons marched into the 49ers red zone. On a second-down pass play, Brooks broke through from the left side of the defense and smashed Ryan to the turf. The quarterback grimaced in pain as he favored his left shoulder, his team needing a touchdown to reach the Super Bowl.
Brooks wasn’t having it. The very next snap, Brooks batted down a Ryan pass in the right flat to bring up fourth down with the game in the balance.
Once fellow linebacker
“I was elated,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of Brooks’ big play.
Following the contest, respected defensive co-captain
“I was pretty much reading him and trying to time up the pass as much as possible so I could try to get an interception,” Brooks said. “I saw it in practice, watched it on film, so I kind of anticipated it. On top of that, I believe one of my teammates was, like, ‘Watch out for the sprint pass.’”
Brooks couldn’t tell who was yelling at him during the pre-snap madness, but his helpful teammate was happy to point out his contribution to the play. It was Pro Bowl safety
“I knew that was coming,” Whitner said.
Harbaugh had seen this before.
In just his third game as an NFL head coach, Harbaugh witnessed Brooks blow up an opposing team’s drive almost single-handedly.
It was Week 3 and the 49ers were 1-1 and coming off of a tough overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, still developing an identity under their new coach. Brooks helped forge the strong defensive identity for the team when he accounted for three big stops on Cincinnati’s opening drive.
First, Brooks and Donte Whitner combined to stuff Cedric Benson at the 2-yard line. On second down, he knocked Benson 2 yards deep in the backfield for a key loss. Finally on third down, Brooks got great pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton to force an errant pass and a chip shot field goal. The 49ers would go on to win 13-8, and have since been one of the league’s most dominant defenses.
So as Harbaugh watched the drama-filled drive in Atlanta on Sunday, he knew Brooks had the talent to help the 49ers take control of the drive.
“He’s got a penchant for doing that,” Harbaugh said. “I can think back to several situations where the team is driving at the end of the game and Ahmad Brooks, two out of the three downs makes the big play.”
As good as Brooks has been against the run and the pass in his two full seasons as an every-down player, his contributions have gone largely unnoticed on the national level. That’s what happens when you play alongside three Pro Bowlers like Bowman,
But inside the walls of 49ers headquarters, teammates and coaches know him as one of the game’s best all-around players at his position. Ditto for the front office, which signed Brooks to a six-year extension in February 2012, keeping him with the 49ers until the 2017 season.
It’s only a matter of time before the secret on Brooks gets out. Perhaps Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens will provide a big enough stage for one of Brooks’ trademark performances.
Whether or not he gets the recognition, though, Brooks doesn’t care. He’s just proud to be one of 53 men in the locker room trying to achieve the ultimate goal of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
“It’s a great team to be around,” Brooks said. “Great teammates. We always come into a great environment at work and it just carries over to Sunday, carries over into the game. We knew it was going to be a hostile environment here having to deal with Atlanta Falcons fans and just the type of team they are. We started off dealing with adversity, but we got through it and eventually ended up winning the game.”