Patrick Willis turned in a monster 18-tackle performance against the Atlanta Falcons this past Monday night. But due to fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman's game-winning interception, Willis' performance was lost in the uproar.
A soft-spoken demeanor off the field, Willis makes his presence known on the field with his uplifting pre-game speeches and his thunderous tackles. His on-field performances are why Willis is mentioned as the top linebacker in the NFL's recent history.
Aside from his statistical prowess, Willis showcased his entire repertoire of physical attributes to the entire nation on Monday Night Football. Willis could be found all over the grass at Candlestick making plays and limiting the big-play potential of a dormant Atlanta Falcons offense that ignited under the lights.
Beating a talented Falcons team on such an emotional night presented a problem to the San Francisco 49ers. However, it was Willis who kept them in check. As Willis goes, so do the 49ers. Thus making Willis' most recent performance a positive sign for San Francisco moving forward.
Willis leads and the rest of the 49ers follow. His leadership qualities were on display throughout the course of Monday's game.
Thanks to the people at 49ers Studios, Willis was wired for sound against the Falcons, and the results were fantastic. Every time Willis spoke, the entire team listened. This isn't anything new for Willis.
In a 2010 interview with Jim Corbett of USA Today, former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith attested to the type of leader Willis is, even as a younger linebacker.
"Patrick's stepped up as a leader," Smith said. "He's someone everyone looks to in the locker room — and not just because of his playmaking. It's the way he approaches the game, his work ethic, attitude and type of person he is."
While leadership isn't an easy trait to quantify, it's easy to recognize it when it's apparent. With Willis, his impact stretches far beyond what he does on the field. Willis' leadership abilities will be called upon as San Francisco moves toward the playoffs.
In 2007, at Ole Miss's annual pro day, Willis solidified himself as a first-round pick with the click of the stopwatch. He reportedly ran a 4.37 40-yard dash, wowing scouts in attendance. While his 40 time floats around the 4.5 range, Willis remains one of the fastest guys on the field every time he puts on a helmet.
With his unique speed, and instincts, Willis has the range to cover all aspects of the football field—especially in coverage.
Covering a future Hall of Fame tight end is no easy task, but Willis held his own against Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan floated a jump ball to the former UC Berkeley basketball player, a ball Gonzalez usually comes down with. However, Willis remained stride for stride with Gonzalez, located the ball and wrestled it out of Gonzalez's grasp.
Linebackers are also called to cover running backs out of the backfield, most of the time by themselves. On a specific instance, Falcons running back Steven Jackson leaked out of the backfield where Ryan checked it down to him. Before Jackson could do anything, he was leveled by Willis.
His range in coverage is one of his most valuable assets.
It's rare to see Willis miss a tackle.
Using his exceptional speed, Willis is able to strike ball-carriers, latch onto them and run his feet to finish the tackle. His form is impeccable, which is why a stat line that features 18 tackles, three of which were for a loss, isn't surprising.
Willis showed that form on a particular play against the Falcons. Jackson, an absolute load of a back at 240 pounds, took a handoff and headed up field. Before he could get a head of steam, Willis blasted through the middle, lost his helmet and made the tackle in the backfield. Something that is extremely difficult, Willis accomplished rather easily.
At 98 tackles, Willis is on pace to reach the 100-tackle mark for the sixth time in his seven-year career. The only time he failed to reach that mark was in 2011 when he missed three games with a broken hand. He still compiled 97 tackles on the season.
Instincts can take Willis to the play, but his ability to make the play once he gets to the ball-carrier is what makes him great. Part of getting to the play is getting through the offensive-line blocking.
Niners Nation, the 49ers affiliate for SB Nation, provides an excellent view of Willis using his athleticism, and instincts to play through a block and make the play on Jackson.
Willis, lined up as the left inside 'backer, makes an initial read that would take him to the right. However, as he's shuffling over, he sees Atlanta left guard Justin Blalock pulling. Willis immediately plants on his right foot and shoots through the gap on the left side. He engages Blalock, shoots through him with his shoulder and makes the play on Jackson at the line of scrimmage.
This scene is one that could be found numerous times in every game that Willis plays in.
Through his first seven seasons in the league, there has been no dropoff from Willis in regard to production. Possibly more impressive, however, is his ability to stay on the field.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com
He's only missed six games in his 105-game career and has averaged 130 tackles per season. He's battled through injuries here and there, but aside from that, Willis has been as healthy as can be in a collision sport like football.
Though his tackle production has dipped off over the last three seasons, that can be accredited to the emergence of Bowman has a fellow All-Pro linebacker.
At 28 years old, there's no reason to not think Willis can keep his outrageous career numbers consistent.