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Linebackers Key to Defensive Success

Posted Aug 8, 2013

Michael Wilhoite filled Patrick Willis’ cleats with flair in the 49ers preseason opener on Thursday night.

When the 49ers huddle before each game, linebacker Patrick Willis is almost always front, center and surrounded, pumping up his team prior to kickoff.

With Willis out after undergoing surgery on his right hand, quarterback Colin Kaepernick assumed this role in the team’s preseason opener on Thursday night at Candlestick Park, but Michael Wilhoite filled Willis’ cleats on the field.

Wilhoite, shaping up to be a solid reserve on the defensive unit, recorded a game-high 10 tackles in San Francisco’s 10-6 defeat to the Denver Broncos.

“It’s always good to be on the field,” Wilhoite said. “To me it was an opportunity to go out and show I can play the linebacker position. With Pat being hurt, I had to step up big and try to help the team as much as possible.

“I just looked at it like it was practice. It’s just live, now we’re tackling to the ground.”

Willis, who is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season, still played an active role on the sideline. When his backup came off the field, the Pro Bowler found Wilhoite and the two discussed, among other things, mindset.

“One time I felt like I was playing too fast. His thing was, ‘Don’t play slower but play smarter. Understand where guys are,’” Wilhoite said. “(Willis) does it in practice, in the meetings, on the field. He’s a smart football player, and he helps us any way he can.”

Wilhoite, who hadn’t taken as many snaps since the 49ers-Broncos battle in Week 3 of the 2012 preseason, also commanded the on-field huddle once fellow starter NaVorro Bowman left the game. The task was not too tall for a second-year player – he went from the UFL to the 49ers practice squad two years ago – who has been practicing alongside Bowman and Co. during much of training camp.

“I can only really think of one play, a 3rd-and-4 pass completion that could have been better, but overall really solid,” Jim Harbaugh said of Wilhoite’s play. “Good communication. Handled the huddle. Tackled well.”

Beyond Wilhoite, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit turned in a strong first performance. Despite the final score, the Broncos offense was actually outgained by the 49ers, 288-220. Both of Denver’s red-zone trips stalled; one ended in a field goal.

In retrospect, the entire linebacking corps was key. Outside 'backer Parys Haralson, on the field for the first time since tearing his triceps in an exhibition against the Broncos a year ago, recorded five tackles, two for a loss, including a sack.

In addition, Dan Skuta, who is competing for a roster spot, recorded two sacks of Broncos backup signal-caller Brock Osweiler, who stands 6 feet, 8 inches tall.

“I approach everything differently with who I am playing,” Skuta said of trying to track down Osweiler. “It changes, but at the same time, you’re just rushing, getting after it.”

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