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Star-Studded Defense Stays Hungry

Posted Dec 27, 2012

Patrick Willis still remembers his first trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl in February 2008. As he looked around the field at his NFC teammates in their blue jerseys, he had a hard time finding another red and gold helmet. That’s because there were none.

But Willis should have no such problems this year, as the 49ers lead all NFL teams with nine selections on the 2013 rosters. Of course, that’s if San Francisco isn’t busy preparing for Super Bowl XLVII.

“I remember as a rookie being the only one selected to go,” Willis said. “You’re over there and you see other teams that have multiple players and the only thing you can say to yourself is, ‘I wish I had more teammates over here.’

“The last two years, we’ve been fortunate enough to have quite a few other guys be able to make it. It’s truly an honor to be voted to the Pro Bowl, but ultimately our goal is to be able to play in that Super Bowl.”

Honolulu is becoming something of an annual destination for Willis, who has become the first player in franchise history to be selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons with the 49ers. In all, less than 20 NFL players have ever accomplished the feat.

But don’t ask Willis for any historical perspective on the impressive foundation he’s laying for his career. He’s too busy working.

“That’s something that when I’m done playing I’ll step back and think about,” Willis said. “But right now, we have a task at hand. That’s the main focus right now – winning games and getting to a Super Bowl and winning that. That’s my main focus and everything else will take care of itself.”

Joining Willis in Hawaii will be four other fellow starters on defense, including Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson. If it wasn’t for the designated 4-3 alignment for the NFC Pro Bowl squad, fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman may have earned a starting nod himself.

For defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, it’s just the latest validation for his talented group of players.

“I was happy for them, for all of them,” Fangio said. “Very well-deserved in all of their parts. Just always happy for the other guy’s success, and happy for these guys in particular. They’re good players. They go about their business the right way and they’ve been rewarded for it.”

After Willis, Justin Smith is the longest-tenured Pro Bowler for the 49ers with four straight invites dating to the 2009 season. The impact of his absence was felt by the whole defense in last week’s loss at Seattle, but Justin Smith stayed in the game on the sidelines. Even late into the fourth quarter, Smith could be seen waving his towel and trying to encourage his teammates from the sideline.

“Just to have that presence, just to see him doing that – that touches us,” Willis said. I know it means a lot to us because he can just sit back and mope and be down about the situation or he can do what he’s been doing.”

The reigning All-Pro, who had his 185-game streak of consecutive starts snapped, sat out Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practice sessions and his status for Sunday’s contest is still unknown.

“I know it’s killing him not to be out there with us,” Willis said. “But I’d rather for him to do the right things and take the right steps so hopefully we can get him back.”

The Cardinals saw what a full-strength 49ers defense is capable of doing in Week 8, as Arizona mustered just 7 rushing yards in a one-sided 24-3 San Francisco victory. Likewise, all-world wideout Larry Fitzgerald was limited to just 52 yards on five catches.

Fitzgerald has undoubtedly been affected by the carousel of Cardinals quarterbacks this season, hauling in 69 catches for 785 yards and four touchdowns, figures well below his career averages. Brian Hoyer, who was picked up from Pittsburgh via waivers earlier this month, will become Arizona’s fourth starting quarterback of 2012 when he suits up on Sunday, joining Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley.

“Obviously, Fitzgerald is their biggest concern,” Fangio said. “Now they have Beanie Wells back. He’s a good running back. They’ve got a good group of receivers. They have the ability to be an explosive attack with their receivers.”

Even if Justin Smith is unable to play this weekend, Willis knows the 49ers defense is up to the task.

“It’s one of those things where each person has to take it up another whole notch,” Willis said. “I know if we just turn it up some more and play attention to detail and play the way we’re capable of playing – you can’t fill his shoes, nobody can come in and do that – but I know we can certainly get it done.”

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