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19 Sep 2007
By Michael David Smith
For those who stayed up late enough to watch, rookie linebacker Patrick Willis was one of the real revelations of the 49ers' Week 1 win over the Arizona Cardinals in the second game of the Monday Night Football doubleheader. And now that the 49ers are off to their first 2-0 start since 1998, people are starting to talk about Willis as one of the surprise breakout players of the season.
But what kind of player is Willis? To find out, I watched him on every play of the 49ers' 17-16 win over the St. Louis Rams Sunday, and I saw a player who's pretty much what the analysts said he was before the 49ers took him out of Ole Miss in the first round of this year's draft. He's incredibly fast and athletic and has the ability to make plays all over the field, but he can be blocked, and the best game plan for teams playing against the 49ers may be to run right at him.
Let's start with the negatives. Like a lot of young and athletic linebackers, Willis has work to do in learning how to get off blocks. On a nine-yard run by Steven Jackson in the first quarter, left tackle Alex Barron blocked Willis one-on-one, and Jackson ran right behind Barron's block. Willis didn't read the play quickly enough, and once Barron (who has 75 pounds on Willis) got a body on him, Willis had no chance.
OK, you say, so a 315-pound tackle on a 240-pound linebacker is a mismatch. But the very next play should concern 49ers fans, as Rams tight end Joe Klopfenstein pushed Willis back five yards on a Jackson run. Klopfenstein had a couple of solid blocks on Willis Sunday. Willis will never have the strength to overpower Barron one-on-one, and he might not even have the strength to overpower Klopfenstein. But the 49ers need Willis to learn to use his quickness to avoid needing to overpower bigger players.
In other words, against the run, Willis' big weakness is the same big weakness for most fast linebackers. But how does he play against the pass? In coverage, there were times when Willis looked a little out of place. On a third-and-9 on the Rams' first drive, for instance, Willis just kind of stood there in coverage, apparently not quite sure what to do. That happened a few times.
The most intriguing question about Willis is what kind of pass rusher he can become. When Willis blitzes, he comes in quickly but a little bit out of control. At times when Willis rushed Rams quarterback Marc Bulger Sunday, the offensive lineman responsible for blocking him could just pat him on the back and watch him take himself out of the play. But the one time he got to Bulger, he packed a punch. On a third-and-11 in the second quarter, Willis lined up as an outside linebacker on the line of scrimmage, rushed around the end, covered five yards about as fast as humanly possible and drilled Bulger just as he threw. Bulger completed the pass, but he looked shaky as he got up. Willis only rushed from the outside a couple of times, but every offensive coordinator preparing for the 49ers this year will be worried about whether his protection schemes can prevent Willis from doing that to his quarterback.
What Willis does best is fly all over the field. On the first play of the second quarter, Willis did something that very few linebackers can do. He lined up at his customary inside linebacker spot and was standing on the right hashmark at the snap. The handoff went to Jackson around the end, on the opposite side of the field from Willis. Rams fullback Brian Leonard tried to block Willis, but Willis shoved him aside before Leonard could get into position to block him, made a beeline for Jackson, grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground. Players with the speed to get to the play on the other side of the field and the strength to throw Steven Jackson to the ground are rare.
When the offensive play breaks down, Willis does a great job of recognizing it and getting there in a hurry. On a second-and-2 handoff to Jackson, the 49ers' defensive line got great penetration against the depleted Rams offensive line, and Jackson was forced to bounce it outside. It was a broken play, but for a moment it looked like Jackson was going to turn it into a positive -- until Willis caught him behind the line of scrimmage and brought him down for a loss of two. It is those plays, where he doesn't stop to think about his assignment and just reacts, where Willis is at his best. If he can reach the point where he's reacting, rather than thinking, on every play, he's going to be great.
One of the things I like about Willis is that he's a hitter, but he doesn't think the tackle ends with the hit. He wraps up the player he's trying to tackle and takes him to the ground. Although his tackles don't always look textbook perfect, he's not the type of linebacker to let a running back bounce off him. On a three-yard run by Jackson early in the third quarter, Willis put Jackson in a bear hug and wrestled him to the ground.
Although the 49ers' defensive schemes are quite a bit different from the Bears', there were times when I watched Willis and thought he could be a similar player to Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, with the speed necessary to fly all over the field, especially in deep pass coverage. In the second quarter the Rams had the ball at the 9-yard line, and Willis was lined up in the middle of the field. At the snap, Willis backpedaled into the end zone and got into perfect position to break up Bulger's pass to Drew Bennett. Willis dropped what could have been a diving interception, but he still prevented a potential touchdown.
Two games into his NFL career, Willis isn't a great player yet, but all of the elements to achieve greatness are there. When he gets more experienced, he'll get better at using his natural athleticism within the 49ers' defensive scheme. With hard work on his part and the right coaching, I could see Willis becoming a staple of the All-Pro teams over the next few years.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
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