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.