The 49ers defense will get a major boost just in time for their crucial third preseason game. With starters likely to see at least one half of action this Saturday night when the 49ers visit the Dallas Cowboys, Joe Staley is returning just in time to get ready for the upcoming season.
Willis suffered an ankle strain on the opening day of training camp and has been sidelined for most of camp. But as of last week, he joined the team for individual drills and 7-on-7 work. This week, Willis has been full-go and will get the start against Dallas, his first of the preseason.
"It's going to be fun to be able to hit again and tackle live," the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker said after Thursday's non-padded practice.
With Willis excited for his first game action of 2009, the 49ers defense is eager to have their captain back.
"It's good that we have Pat back," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "I'm looking forward to it and he's looking forward to it as well."
Willis picked a great week to return as he will face the team he grew up rooting for. Last season, Willis said playing against the Cowboys in the regular season got him extra amped up. But this time around, he expects his emotions to be in check and that he'll "actually make a play or two."
Its likely Willis will make tons of plays all over the field as the athletic specimen is unlikely to lose his All-Pro form overnight. The only thing that might slow him down is the lack of conditioning he has due to missing practice time.
"I feel like I'm kind of up to speed. I can't say I'm up to game speed because I haven't played in a game yet, but as far as getting my eyes right and feeling things and understand the field and how things are rolling again, I feel pretty good for the most part. Game time is something different, in a sense," he explained.
Manusky trusts that Willis will get acclimated right away, but understands that getting his stamina back to regular season-ready is most important.
"As long as he gets the calls and rotates and just gets his air underneath him more than anything, get his lungs back into shape because it's totally different when you're practicing compared to playing the game," Manusky said. "I'm expecting him to get his lungs back and then start rolling with it."
With Willis in the lineup the 49ers are anxious to continue building on their finish to last season. But Willis understands that last season is exactly that – last season.
"I never think we're where we should be," Willis said. "I mean, the fans and people say we've done some things well. The guys on the back-end, the front, across the board have played alright, but we haven't played to the kind of caliber that we have to play with at all times in order to win those games that we have to win – any game for that matter.
"But, I think we're getting there. We still have a lot of work to do, but I think we're just right around the corner. Coach talks about it all the time; it's consistency. When we can get that down and play each defense fundamentally sound and do the things right that we're supposed to do, then it won't matter who we play."
Hill Returns to Practice
After taking Wednesday's afternoon practice off, starting quarterback Shaun Hill returned to practice on Thursday.
Hill spoke to the media after the light workout and was asked a number of questions pertaining to the health status of his back.
Hill wasn't sure how to handle all the hoopla over his lower back strain. After all, it's the first time he's entering an NFL season as a starter. But the questions kept coming, finally Hill explained that the dramatization surrounding his injury was blown out of proportion.
"I don't know about all of that stuff," Hill said with a confused look. "It's a little new to me. You guys are just going to have to forgive me. I'm a little naïve about all of that stuff. If it was anything pressing, my mother and father would have known without reading [about] it. They would've known from me instead of reading it. So, everything is fine."
Hill said he would start against the Cowboys as far as he knew.