BOARDMAN, Ohio – There's a bit of the unknown heading into Sunday's Week 4 road contest against the New York Jets.
The San Francisco 49ers expect to face a physical 2-1 Jets team coming off a 23-20 overtime road victory in Miami, but they're also anticipating New York to utilize a Wildcat formation with backup quarterback Tim Tebow running the package.
"We certainly know that he's had some success running that in Denver and I think they've run it a few times this year," All-Pro linebacker Joe Staley said on Thursday. "It's something that we've been preparing for, but also just preparing for the whole offense."
When New York's 17th ranked rushing attack (100.3 yards per game) faces San Francisco's eighth-ranked rush defense (91.0 yards per game), the home team could very well feature their backup quarterback known for taking on defenders with a rugged running style.
Tebow has carried the ball seven times this season for 38 yards, including a 22-yard gain.
Furthermore, Willis and the 49ers are well aware of what he accomplished last season with the Broncos (122 carries, 660 rushing yards and six touchdowns). They've also been brushing up on the Denver film this week during the team's stay in Ohio.
"We watched some of it, I watched some of it," Willis said. "I don't know if they're going to try and incorporate it or use it a little bit, but whatever they decide to do, I feel like we're going to be prepared for it."
The 49ers have a quarterback on their own roster capable of running a zone-read offense in Colin Kaepernick, who can help them prepare for Sunday's game.
But more importantly, the defensive gameplan is to be aware of wherever the popular quarterback lines up and make sure it's not a distraction to the play call from defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
"They switch it up, they want to move Tebow around to distract you," safety Donte Whitner detailed. "If you're not prepared, if you allow him to be a distraction, he can be a distraction. We're going to know where he is at all times."
Whitner also is going to make sure he keeps tabs on his college teammate Santonio Holmes.
The former Ohio State Buckeyes will be reunited this week and Whitner expects No. 10 to be a focal point of New York's passing attack. Last week alone, Holmes was targeted 14 times by quarterback Mark Sanchez, who attempted 45 passes against the Dolphins.
"They want to get the ball to Santonio Holmes, first and foremost," Whitner said. "I know the type of player he is and I know what he's capable of doing. We have to understand that and know where he is at all times."
Willis echoed the thoughts of his hard-hitting safety.
When asked about the Jets offensive personnel that stood out to him the most, Holmes' name came out of Willis' mouth first.
"They have some good receivers, Santonio Holmes, being one of those guys," Willis said. "They have some big offensive linemen and obviously, they like to run the ball as well. They're a good football team, a physical football team."
The challenge of facing another tough-minded team is welcomed by Willis and company. Coming off the team's first loss of the regular season and the most lopsided loss in the Jim Harbaugh era (11 points), the 49ers are eager to get back to limiting the production of high-powered offenses like they did in back-to-back wins over Green Bay and Detroit.
"A loss to us is about being better the next week than we were the week before," Willis explained. "At the end of the day, whether you win or you lose, you have to put it behind you and get ready for the next game."
Mentally sharp heading into Sunday's matchup, Willis said he feels physically fine as well. Despite rolling his ankle last week while trying to recover a fourth-quarter fumble in Minnesota, Willis has been practicing this week at Youngstown State.
"I feel good," Willis said, channeling his inner James Brown. "The body feels good, everything feels great. With each day, like I said, I'm just going to be smart and continue to do what the trainers ask me to do and we'll see Sunday."
Willis said the ankle injury was the first time he'd been rolled up on in a scrum for a loose ball, but added, "Thank God it was no worse than it was."
The loss to Minnesota hurt more than the throbbing ankle.
However, it didn't discourage the goals previously set by Willis and his teammates for the 2012 season.
"For us, (the loss) doesn't discourage us as a defense, being where we want to be or being who we are," the defensive co-captain reiterated. "It's just one of those things. We watched the film, knew where our mistakes were and at the end of the day, we're not going to take anything from Minnesota. They did what they needed to do win the game and we didn't play our best football. They won and that's what it was."
Sunday's matchup in New York figures to be a challenge like every week in the National Football League. Willis and the rest of the 49ers defense knows that and they'll expect the best from New York, even if it means utilizing their much ballyhooed reserve quarterback.