The sweet taste of success won't spoil the work ethic of the 49ers defense. Although defensive coordinator Vic Fangio sees his players being hungry as ever heading into his second season in San Francisco, he knows the type of humble, high-character performers on his side of the ball.
Last season's Divisional Playoff win over the New Orleans Saints and appearance in the NFC title game was a first for every member of Fangio's unit. Knowing that, the respected defensive coach expects his players to continue working to reach the ultimate goal, hoisting the franchise's sixth Vince Lombardi trophy.
"Everybody that's on this defense last year that is still here, that was their first playoff victory in their careers, all of them," Fangio said Saturday at 49ers training camp. "It was their first trip to the championship game for all of them and I don't think we have anybody that's going to be satisfied with just that. If anything, it wets their appetite a little bit more. They're looking for more. I don't think complacency will be an issue."
With all 11 starters returning to a unit that led the league in rush defense, finished second in scoring defense and recorded a league-leading 38 takeaways, Fangio is using training camp to fine tune his playbook.
It's a far cry from where the unit was at this time last season.
Back then, Fangio was just installing as much of his defense as possible due to the abbreviated offseason. Fangio exposed his players to a variety of defensive calls and alignments last summer and later adjusted the packages to best fit his players.
This time around, players admit there's still more room to grow.
"We haven't mastered it," starting cornerback Tarell Brown said. "We're trying to limit the mental errors and get better in every defense that we can. But I think you have another year under your belt you can just work to get better and give yourself another opportunity to have a great season."
Brown said he appreciated seeing teammate Dashon Goldson sign his one-year franchise tender so he could report to camp on time.
"That says a lot about Dashon as a person," Brown said. "Coming in early and competing with his guys and being out here to go through the grind of training camp, it just shows a lot from him.
"Having the whole crew back, anytime you have all 11 starters back with the type of defense that we have, a physical, attacking defense, it's special."
It'll certainly be a challenge for Fangio's defense to surpass last season's dominance, but they'll try to make it a reality.
"We've always expected a lot out of ourselves, a lot out of this team and to do well," five-time All-Pro linebacker Joe Staley said. "It took awhile to finally get there, but it does no good just to get their once and not have it happen again. Our main focus is coming out each day and preparing the best we can each day, take it day-by-day and see where we're at the end of training camp."
In the case of Willis, one of the league's top overall defenders, a sixth training camp allows the lethal linebacker to develop all aspects of his game. In 2011, Willis spent a great deal of the season in coverage against some of the league's top tight ends.
Willis doesn't have to go far to be challenged in that regard, he'll get the tough task of covering San Francisco's versatile tight ends, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker throughout camp.
If Willis makes a mistake, he's not bashful about asking for help.
"I take pride in my knowledge," Willis said, before mentioning he's asking more questions this year than in any point of his career. "We're out here working just as hard as we were last year to be even better."
Perhaps the best line of the day came from the soft-spoken linebacker when discussing the combination of athleticism and knowledge being equal.
Willis said if both sides match up, "then we'll have something serious."
Top to bottom, the 49ers have something serious on the defensive side of the ball. But it's not like they're getting over confident. If anything, Fangio's players are ready and willing to earn respect once more in 2012.
They also know they have the right person to lead them.
"Man, it's amazing just to have a guy like that with the knowledge that he has of the game," Brown said of his coordinator. "His mindset of how he attacks people and uses the weapons that we have on defense, it's just amazing.
"To be around him every day and to pick his brain and get the knowledge he has, and get to absorb it every day, it's just a blessing to have him around us."