Willis redefining 'complete linebacker'


Willis redefining 'complete linebacker'

Patrick Willis introduction to the NFL came against Arizona on a Monday night in 2007. The eleventh overall pick in that years draft instantly lit up the league with 15 tackles and a strip of Edgerrin James. Willis set his career mark of 15 solo tackles in another game against Arizona in November of that same season. But playing the team against which he has had so much success holds no special status for the veteran linebacker.

To me, its about going out there each Sunday and proving why I love to play the game, Willis said. And thats what this Sunday is about, to go out there and play good defense individually and also as a team.

Willis faces the 3-6 Cardinals this Sunday with a few wrinkles added to the Pro Bowl skills hes possessed throughout his first four years in the league. From the onset of training camp, the 49ers new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio set out to improve Willis presence in pass coverage, specifically, in pressuring the quarterback.

Hes done better lately in rushing the passer when we blitz him, Fangio said. He got the sack last game and hes applied some pressure here of late, and he has been improving. And thats a credit to Pat, that hes able to improve during the season when you dont do a lot of pass-rush drill work, particularly in the way he blitzes and stuff. So, Ive been pleased.
Fangios schemes also drop Willis into coverage more, often pitting his strengths of speed and range against the leagues bigger tight ends.

This is the first year Ive had to cover as much as I have, Willis said. One of the things that Ive taken pride in, and to me, its a challenge. Im always looking for a challenge. Thats what keeps the game fun. To be able to go out there and cover in open field or just cover period, its big. Not a lot of guys like to do it, want to do it and can do it. For me, its something that Ive taken pride in this year, and I just want to be the best I can be at it.

The Lions Brandon Pettigrew (65), Washingtons Fred Davis (64) and the Giants Jake Ballard (66) have all experienced Willis best this season. Pettigrew is the only tight end who has had success against Willis, but he had to hold on to Willis entire right arm as well as the ball all the way to the ground for his touchdown. More often, the only thing Willis opponents come down with is frustration as Davis did during the Washington game -- leading to a colorful exchange between the two.

Fred Davis is one of the better tight ends in this league, and of course, going against a guy like that, hes very confident in himself and Im confident in myself, Willis said. When you have those two type of mentalities its going to be a fight.

Davis didnt have a reception until the fourth quarter and ended the game with four catches for 42 yards. Willis had 13 combined tackles and two forced fumbles.

Even with increased responsibilities, Willis 78 tackles are only slightly lower than his numbers through nine games in previous seasons, and he still ranks in the leagues top ten at that.
Hes the five-tool linebacker. Plays downhill, I think, better than any linebacker in football, but he can also cover in pass protection. Weve seen evidence of that over and over, said head coach Jim Harbaugh. He can run sideline to sideline. He can run plays down for the backside. Hes got the speed to shoot a gap and make a play from behind and you see that many times. You see that many times when hes fully laid out making the late tackle on a quarterback or from behind on a back. Excellent blitzer.

My whole thing is when my numbers called make it count, Wills said, and do what Im asked to do and work every day to be a complete linebacker.

Willis just may be redefining what a complete linebacker means.

Practice report: 49ers passing game looks much improved


Practice report: 49ers passing game looks much improved

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers’ passing game has ranked 29th or lower in each of the past four seasons.

If two practices against last year’s No. 1-ranked pass defense are any indication, the 49ers could be vastly improved under coach Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Brian Hoyer.

“I think our guys were expecting to do good,” Shanahan said on Thursday after a second joint practice against the Denver Broncos in two days. “There’s a lot of stuff we can clean up. A lot of stuff we can do better. But I think our guys were happy with how they competed and, hopefully, that can continue to carry over.”

Hoyer hit more higher-percentage passes on Thursday. He teamed up with rookie Victor Bolden on his deepest completion -- down the left sideline against first-team All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris. After completing better than 80 percent of his passes against the Broncos a day earlier, Hoyer was 12 of 19 passing on Thursday.

Pierre Garçon, who figures to be Hoyer’s top target, was not as active during Thursday’s practice. But he did find himself in the middle of the action with a tussle against Harris.

Hoyer’s red-zone pass intended for slot receiver Jeremy Kerley was tipped and intercepted by safety Justin Simmons. Away from the action, Aqib Talib blocked Garçon, who retaliated by tossing him to the ground.

“That’s part of the game,” Garçon said. ‘You always expect one scuffle in joint practices. But it ended and you move on. It was nothing personal at all.”

Hoyer was especially sharp during the practices to strengthen his grasp on the team’s staring job. Meanwhile, rookie C.J. Beathard had a solid showing on Thursday. He will enter Saturday’s game after Hoyer and could play through the rest of the first half and open the third quarter.

The 49ers exited the field after their two most-significant practices feeling optimistic about where things stand.

“We did good the first day,” Garçon said. “We could’ve done better the second day. But we’re still learning each other and getting better. We still have a lot to do to get ready for the regular season, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

--Linebacker Reuben Foster wore shoulder pads and took part in all but the contact drills due to what the team described as a “mild AC joint sprain” of his right shoulder. That did not prevent Foster from getting into the middle of a skirmish that appeared to involve Broncos tackle Menelik Watson and 49ers linebacker Eli Harold.

The 49ers expect Foster to play Saturday night, Shanahan said.

--Linebacker NaVorro Bowman was pulled from practice on Thursday after experiencing soreness in his shoulder. Shanahan said Bowman's shoulder soreness is similar to what Foster experienced.

--The Broncos’ offense, which struggled to complete passes on Wednesday, made a lot more plays down the field on Thursday with Paxton Lynch at quarterback.

--Tight end Vance McDonald made an outstanding catch of a Hoyer pass at the sideline against tight coverage from safety Will Parks.

--The 49ers’ practice Thursday brought an official end to the team’s training camp. They will transition to a regular-season type of schedule next week leading up to the team’s third exhibition game, which is scheduled for Sunday at the Minnesota Vikings.

“Training camp is over, and what that means is we’re not all staying in dorms together and we’re not having night walk-throughs,” Shanahan said.

49ers making a quarterback change for preseason game vs Broncos


49ers making a quarterback change for preseason game vs Broncos

C.J. Beathard will be the No. 2 quarterback against the Broncos on Saturday night, Kyle Shanahan announced on Thursday.

In the team's first exhibition game in Kansas City, Matt Barkley was the No. 2 QB behind Brian Hoyer.

Barkley completed 10 of 17 passes for 168 yards against the Chiefs.

Beathard went 7 for 11 with 101 yards and two touchdowns.

The 49ers traded up in the 2017 draft and selected Beathard in the third round (104th overall).