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19 Sep 2007

Every Play Counts: Patrick Willis

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.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 19 Sep 2007

29 comments, Last at 21 Sep 2007, 1:28am by hector


by dryheat (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 10:27am

Keep in mind that he's still going through the transition to a 3-4 defense. If and when things click for him, the sky's the limit.

by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 11:04am

"I watched Willis and thought he could be a similar player to Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher"

High (potential) praise indeed. Does Willis leave the field in Nickel/Dime situations?

by Michael David Smith :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 11:35am

Willis stayed on the field in short yardage and long yardage. He's an every-down player.

by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 11:38am


Thanks. Sounds like he's gonna be a good one.

by JJcruiser (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 11:38am

It's interesting though, that what you're describing Willis as fits much better in a 4-3 linebacker than the traditional linebacker in a 3-4. From your description, the guy he reminds me of most is Jonathan Vilma, who, while still regarded as a great player, hasn't widely been recognized as a brilliant fit in a 3-4.

by Joshua (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 11:43am

there were times when I watched Willis and thought he could be a similar player to Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher

How is that possible? Willis is fast, while Urlacher only has deceptive speed

The first cardinal rule of sports journalism is that you can only draw comparisons between players of the same race.

Shame on you, MDS, shame on you.

We all know that AJ Hawk is the next Urlacher and Willis is the next Derrick Brooks.

And Vince Young is the next Steve McNair and JaMarcus Russell is the next Dante Culpepper.

And Wes Welker=Ed McCaffery.

by Not The Great Babe Laufenberg (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 12:07pm

#6: Sorry to have to inform you, but the millionth person to make that point does not win a shopping spree.

by justsaying (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 12:25pm

#6. Ernie Sims is the next Derrick Brooks? Haven't you watched any Lions games? Every single announcer says it.

by jebmak (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 12:33pm

People watch Lion's games?

by David S. (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 12:42pm

#6, If that's the case, people in Atlanta are sure gonna be dissapointed the first time Leftwich gets flushed out of the pocket.

If the Niners keep adding guys like Willis and Manny Lawson they'll have the most athletic linebacking corp in all the land. And since they seem to not want to do anything offensively with Vernon Davis they can try playing him there.

by MJK (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 12:43pm

On the 3-4 versus 4-3 thing, it depends what type of 3-4 or 4-3 you're talking about. I'm no X's and O's expert, but I would imagine that Dungy's 4-3 LB's in Indy are obviously very different from LB's that don't play in the Tampa-2. And I know that the 3-4 that San Diego and the Steelers run is quite different from the 3-4 that the Jets and Browns and Patriots run, and ask the LB's to do different things.

by MJK (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 12:49pm

I'd be interested to hear a similar analysis of Poz in Buffalo (and yes, I say "Poz" because I'm too lazy right now to look up how to actually spell his name). He and Willis seemed to be the two most highly touted LB's in the draft this year, with Willis the consensus better pick. But everything I've heard implies that Poz has the potential to have quite a year. I wonder if Buffalo fans have any comments on how he has been actually playing, and how he might compare to Willis?

by Glazius (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 1:03pm

For what it's worth, Poz had a lot of tackles in Sunday's game. 5 tackles, 7 assists.

Then again, the Steelers ran a lot of plays in Sunday's game, and Poz wasn't always the first point of contact for the play. When he was, the vets on the Steelers O-line tended to lever him aside.

by SGT Ben (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 1:25pm


Wes Welker and Ed McCaffery are two very different types of white receivers. Wes is more Don Beebe. Joe Jurevicious is more McCaffery.

Other than that, loved the Sarcasm!

For the rest:

Poz is a very smart (albeit Rookie) LB for Buffalo, but many of his tackles are several yards up the field...due to inability to shed block or chasing the HB/WR/TE down from behind.

by fish shure (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 1:26pm

Not a Bills fan, but I've watched both of their games because I'm in the "local" (300 miles away) area.

Posluszny (guessing at the spelling) seems like one of the only really competent players on their defense, particularly amongst their back 7. If the d-line doesn't blow up a play, Poz usually has to come clean up. I don't know how well he does in coverage, but he seems to be a very good tackler. He's very patient and doesn't get juked out easily. When he gets blocked, the rest of the defense has a tough time taking down runners.

by John Morgan (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 1:51pm

A lot of linebackers are big hitters who can "fly around" but can't shed blockers or work in coverage. It would seem every draft class produces at least one. Looking through the play-by-play five of Willis' eight tackles (counting assists) were for 7 or more yards. That's the sort of cleanup tackle that is as much the product of bad defense as good play by the individual. So, I still don't understand what about Willis makes Michael David Smith think he can achieve greatness. Is it simply his athleticism?

by bubqr (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 2:04pm

He has clear cut All Pro ability, and with so much talent, and such a great work ethic, there's no doubt that the Niners got their Defense leader for the next 10 years in P.Willis.

I'd like an analysis of Poz too, cause i'm not watching Bills games(Who does atm ? Just watch the Lee Evans TDs on NFL.com, last year it was clearly enough), but he seems to be everywhere.

by Coach Tuesday (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 2:35pm

Re: 12, the rumor in Buffalo is that the Bills had Poz ranked ahead of Willis, b/c of Willis' inability to shed blockers (which was the same reason they ditched London Fletcher). And so far, results on the field have proven the Bills correct - Poz can get through a guard and make the tackle much closer to the line than Fletch did. Sounds from MDS's article like the Bills' draft board was ranked correctly.

by KJ (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 3:21pm

8: You probably already know this, but the reason the Sims comparison makes more sense is being the WLB in a Tampa 2.

For anyone trying to compare Willis and Poz, I don't think it's very fair to compare them by stats straight up. I have both in fantasy, and I'd value Poz slightly more in fantasy, but like Willis slightly more in real life. You just have a lot more opportunities to get tackles as the Bills MLB than a 49ers ILB alongside Derek Smith. Still, they are both candidates to be great players, and it'll be interesting to see how they develop.

by Marvin49 (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 3:37pm

RE #16: Yes...there are lot of players who fly around.....but soething is different with this guy. I can't even really put my finger on it. He flys in makes a big his AND wraps up. What the article doesn't talk about (and this is especially true in his first game) there are a number of plays he simply blows up but doesn't make the tackle. One of these was a screen pass from Leinart ti Shipp.....Willis blitzed the gap so quickly he hit Shipp after only two steps after the snap...and if Shipp hadn't been there Willis would have sacked Leinart while he was still dropping back.

RE #18: I have serious problems with that runor...lol. The Bills were trying to trade up to #9 or #10 to move AHEAD of SF to take Willis. That rumor sounds alot like those rumors that come out right after the draft when a team says "well, we got the guy we targeted all along".

POZ may be great....this isn't a critisism of him....I'm just leary about that "rumor".

by SGT Ben (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 3:43pm

RE #18/#20

There was also a rumor that Alyssa Milano and I were going to hook up. But it was mostly a publicity thing where she was taking pics with Soldiers overseas. The smile may/maynot have been genuine, but it's still a great pic and a nice addition to my overseas tour a couple of years back!

by lionsbob (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 3:44pm

#5 Really? I heard the exact opposite that Vilma has been a terrible fit in the 3-4 and the Jets were shopping him around.

I loved Willis at Ole Miss. And I loved Poz as well (who I compared to DeMeco Ryans-if that is allowed?) as a guy who drops because he is not as fast or has great combine numbers, but just is around the ball regardless.

by Derek (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 3:51pm

I watched Patrick and Poz all through collegen and they are close in ability,but Willis is definately the better of the two.Both are potential all star caliber lb's,but Patrick was rookie of the week in the NFL week 1 and leading for week 2.Poz doesn't even get honorable mention.

by Matt (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 4:00pm

22 - #5 said that Vilma was a bad fit in the 3-4.

by lionsbob (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 4:33pm

I see it not-I read it differently, but know I see it.

I redact my comment.

by bravehoptoad (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 5:10pm

The 49ers defense is exciting to watch. Then the offense gets on the field and you see the most screwed up play-calling. There's plenty of talent on that side of the ball, but it's as if the coaches just don't care if their offense makes first downs or not.

I think now that there's some expectations to win, we're seeing the true Nolan come out. He's trying to turn the 49ers into Ravens West.

It's sad to watch.

by Jim Ryalto (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 7:05pm

Nolan only coaches that way when the niners are ahead. Watch the games, when the niners need to score, suddenly Alex Smith can pass the ball, but go up even one touchdown on the other team and Nolan starts grinding the clock with Gore. he's got a ton of confidence in the Niners D, and some of that is because of P Willis.

by Independent George (not verified) :: Thu, 09/20/2007 - 1:08am

Ok, is anybody else getting re-directed to an ad for a gambling website? Is this new?

by hector (not verified) :: Fri, 09/21/2007 - 1:28am

"people are starting to talk about Willis as one of the surprise breakout players of the season"

He was a star in college and the 11th pick in the draft - how surprised can anyone be that Willis is pretty darn good in the pros, too? We're not breaking any new ground there.