SANTA CLARA -- At his fifth Pro Bowl earlier this year, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis got quite an earful about the 49ers' 2011 season.
"It's amazing when you hear other guys and other coaches say, 'Wow, you guys played football the way it's supposed to be played.' To hear them say that, for me, it makes me want to push even harder to be that example, to set those standards."
Willis and NaVorro Bowman are considered by many to be the best inside-linebacking duo in the NFL. But this is only their first OTA with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
They're both realizing there is so much to learn about Fangio's defense that will make them even better.
"Now when we're in meetings, and we're learning something, we look at each other and be like, 'How did we play a whole season last year without knowing that?'" Willis said. "So now it's just understanding the defense that much more."
"We're starting all over," said Bowman, who had 143 total tackles last season. "We're just trying to get better at the defenses that we learned last year -- and maybe put some new things in. We're definitely taking advantage of the time we have now. It should make us a better team."
Having a capable backup in Larry Grant, who stepped up when Willis was sidelined late in the year, makes them that much better as well.
Grant amassed 34 tackles, five passes defensed and a game-changing forced fumble in Seattle in the four games Willis was out with injury.
"Being in there, able to play with the rest of the guys on this defense, it also helps my comfort as well, and helps their comfort with me," Grant said. "Just knowing if something was to happen with either one of those guys there wouldn't be any drop-off. And they know that I can play now, they trust me a lot more."
The comfort level among these linebackers is found off the field as well.
"We got the two best guys in the league and our role is basically the same," Grant said.