Things are looking up for the San Francisco 49ers, who head into the bye week with a 6-2 record after winning five straight games by double-digits for the first time in 18 years. The 49ers are also looking forward to the return of several players who could be key contributors, players who’ve missed the entire season thus far due to injuries.
Another player whose getting back to full strength at the season’s midpoint is Patrick Willis. Remember him? The most likely Hall of Famer on the roster? Getting Mario Manningham back should help the 49ers’ passing attack, but don’t underestimate the importance of an unencumbered All-Pro linebacker flying all over the field, filling gaps in the run game, covering tight ends and the occasional receiver, and “lawnmowering” the ball out whenever possible.
Willis entered the year wearing a big cast to protect his broken hand, an injury that required surgery and forced him to miss the entire preseason. It’s difficult for broken bones to heal while they’re getting smashed on a regular basis during NFL games, but Willis’ hand is getting better.
Patrick Willis couldn’t remember whether he forced a fourth-quarter fumble with his right or left hand – and that’s a positive sign for the 49ers linebacker.
Willis had to go to his left hand when he caused a game-altering fumble against the the Cardinals in Week 6 because his right hand still was recovering from a broken bone that cost him most of training camp and the entire preseason.
“It’s starting to get a lot better,” Willis said of the hand. “I was able to lift with it this week and put up a little weight.”
Willis played decently but not quite up to his usual level during the season’s first three games, and had to leave during the team’s 27-7 loss to the Colts with a groin injury. He missed the next two games, and even though he forced Larry Fitzgerald’s fumble that was recovered by Eric Reid and effectively locked down the 49ers’ eventual win over the Cardinals in his first game back, Willis admitted after the game that he was playing through pain.
Little by little, Willis has improved from a health standpoint and his play has followed suit. After playing in 57 of the team’s 68 defensive snaps against Arizona, Willis was on the field for all 137 snaps over the last two games.
While he has averaged a respectable six tackles per game this season, Willis’ overall game scores from Pro Football Focus have been lower than we’ve seen in previous years. His best game according to the folks at PFF came yesterday against Jacksonville, a performance that earned Willis a score of 2.2. To put that in perspective, Willis has scored higher than 2.2 in at least five games in every season since 2008, the first year PFF started scoring individual players.
But Willis is one of those rare middle linebackers whose standout games get recognition without needing stats or PFF scores to quantify his greatness; his dominance jumps off the screen in a way that’s clear to anyone watching.
About the bye week, Willis said, “It’s a good time for our team … for guys who are on the verge of coming back, for guys who are dealing with some injuries, for guys to rest their body a little bit.”
What can we expect to see from a healthy Willis over the season’s last eight games? A few predictions:
More pass deflections — Willis has defensed 22 passes over the last two seasons and 50 in his career. He has zero PD so far this season, but that’ll probably change.
More QB pressure — Willis only has one quarterback hit and one hurry so far. Vic Fangio didn’t feel the need to move away from the base defense very often against Jacksonville (they played nickel slightly less than half the time, usually that number is closer to two-thirds of the snaps), but Willis and NaVorro Bowman are effective blitzers when utilized in that capacity.
Better run defense — The 49ers haven’t been that impressive this season in an area where they’ve been dominant for several years. They’re 16th in rushing yards allowed per carry (3.9) and 22nd in rushing touchdowns allowed (7). Not horrible, but we’ve come to expect most teams giving up on the run by the second quarter against San Francisco. A lot of that has had to do with injuries and substance abuse-related absences on the defensive line, but Willis’ health issues haven’t helped either.
Another All-Pro nod — Willis has been named first-team All-Pro in five of his six seasons, and in the other (2008) he was named second-team. At 28, Willis is still in the prime. There’s no reason why he can’t go crazy over the last eight games and make that six out of seven years.