Skip to main content

Willis Leads Unselfish Defense


It's not about stats or limelight. It's all about collective success. That's how the San Francisco 49ers approach the defensive side of the game, they approach it as a team.

That unselfish mindset comes into greater focus this week as one of San Francisco's defensive leaders could be limited in action in Saturday's Divisional Playoff game against the Green Bay Packers.

Enter Joe Staley.

If the Packers elect to spread the ball out with multiple wide receiver formations instead of traditional base sets, Willis, one of San Francisco's five Pro Bowl defenders, just might spend a portion of Saturday's game against the Green Bay Packers on the sideline.

If the Packers elect to utilize four and five-receiver sets, Willis, San Francisco's perennial Pro Bowl linebacker, will likely be replaced in the 49ers dime defense by fourth cornerback Perrish Cox.

Such was the case when the 49ers defeated the Packers 30-22 on the road to start the regular season. When the Packers used multiple wide receivers instead of trying to run the football against the 49ers, NaVorro Bowman stayed in the game as the team's only inside linebacker.

As competitive as Willis, a six-time Pro Bowl linebacker, can be, the defensive leader understands the reasons for the 49ers utilizing Bowman, a fellow Pro Bowler, in the dime linebacker role.

"I can do it, but it's primarily his job," Willis said, before explaining that Bowman's "Mike" linebacker position mans that spot in Vic Fangio's dime defense.

Willis, San Francisco's defensive co-captain, said moving to the sideline is not a problem should the Packers go four-wide against the 49ers defense.

Willis will carry out whatever Fangio calls and will not pout about it.

"I've learned that's not a team player," Willis said. "A team player does what he's asked to do, plays in the packages he's called upon and is called to do his job when it's time to do his job.

"If my job is to come off the field on that package and cheer my teammates on, then that's what I'll do."

Both of San Francisco's inside linebackers, however, are more than capable of playing the position. At times, Willis and Bowman will have rotated at the dime linebacker spot depending on the game's situation.

The dime discussion comes into even greater focus this week with Green Bay entering its sixth postseason meeting with San Francisco as one of the league's hottest offensive units.

The Packers won 10 of their last 12 regular season games and followed that hot streak with a 326-yard performance in a Wild Card win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Aaron Rodgers continued his dominant play – posting 274 passing yards and a 104.9 quarterback rating in a sound performance that saw him complete passes to 10 different Packers.

The variety of targets for the former NFL MVP is a concern for Fangio.

"The good news," Fangio began, "is there isn't one guy you've got to stop. That's also the bad news; there isn't only one guy you've to stop."

The 49ers coordinator pointed out that Green Bay's offense is unique in that it attacks the entire field, horizontally and vertically.

"They've got a lot of offense to defend," Fangio said. "They mix it up pretty good in what they're going to do. They're a great challenge."

At full strength with the return of Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings at wide receiver, the Packers now have an arsenal of weapons to compliment regular season standouts like James Jones and Randall Cobb.

"He's very comfortable spreading the ball around," Fangio said of Rodgers, the NFL's all-time leader with a 105.4 postseason passer rating. "He's going to throw it to the open guy. He doesn't have a favorite it seems to me."

Cobb, in particular, has caught Fangio's eye. San Francisco's coordinator saw the second-year wideout line up in the backfield, in the slot and even out on the perimeter throughout the regular season.

That, in actuality, started in Week 1 against the 49ers.

After Jennings suffered a groin injury against San Francisco's defense, Cobb was relied on heavily by the Packers. He finished the year with a team-leading 80 catches and 954 receiving yards to go with eight touchdown grabs.

In Fangio's mind, the key to stopping Cobb, or any of Green Bay's play-makers for that matter, comes down to fundamentals and execution.

"If we don't have a good game tackling," Fangio said, "we probably won't have a good game defensively."

So while the Packers have found ways to improve on offense over the course of the season, the same can be said for the 49ers defense.

Willis believes it has everything to do with handling adversity, something that stems from unselfish play.

"They've gotten a lot better as a football team and so have we," Willis said. "We had many opportunities to go the other way, but we haven't taken the easy road. We feel like we are just as good as last year."

Hungrier for this year's postseason run, Willis is also wiser from his experiences.

"We just play football," he said. "That's what makes our defense fun to be a part of. We have a bunch of unselfish guys.

"It's just about doing what we've got to do at that point in time to play good defense."

Willis undoubtedly wants to be out on the field for every snap no matter what, but he also understands the type of player the 49ers have for that unique role.

"The competitive side of me, of course, I want to be out there," Willis reasoned. "But at the same time, it doesn't hurt when the guy beside you can play it just as good as you can play it.

"I have complete confidence in NaVorro playing in it… He plays it well enough as anyone I've seen it played, so therefore, it's not an issue. It's not a problem."

Willis will remain a key figure in Saturday's game.

The Packers have become more of a balanced offense in recent weeks with the emergence of DuJuan Harris at running back. Saturday's matchup all comes down to whether or not the Packers choose to spread 49ers out or see how their new-look running game matches up against the NFL's fourth-best rush defense (94.2 yards per game).

"It's going to be a game and we wouldn't want it any other way," Willis summed up. "It's the playoffs."

The 49ers defensive leader understands Saturday's matchup is another opportunity to show its true defensive identity, an unselfish, relentless outfit, geared to win as a team.

"We want to prove we are the football team we know we are." ![]( 

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.