The 5 Biggest Threats in the NFC West - Part 7 - Patrick Willis

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 04: Patrick Willis #52 of the San Francisco 49ers lines up against the St. Louis Rams at Candlestick Park on December 4, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The number two threat in the NFC West is yet another dreaded San Francisco 49er defensive player. Previously, Justin Smith had come in at number three, Vernon Davis had claimed the fourth spot , and Patrick Peterson had checked in at number five. The three groups that came before those players were The Ignored, The In-Between, and The Threats.

Despite what may feel like a decade or more to Rams' fans, Patrick Willis has been torturing us for a mere five years. Willis was drafted by the 49ers with the 11th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, and made an immediate impact; making the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team, winning the Alumni Linebacker of the Year (voted on by former NFL linebackers), and winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

The accolades for Willis have continued to pour in since his rookie year. In five seasons, he has made five Pro Bowls, four First-Team All-Pros and a Second-Team All-Pro, and has been awarded three Alumni Linebacker of the Year honors. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc said the following prior to the 2011 season:

"Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot. He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses."

Patrick Willis

With all of those awards under his belt, and still just 27 years old, just how good is Patrick Willis in a historical context? Clearly, the first comparison which jumps to mind is Ray Lewis. The following stats are through the first five seasons for each player:

Tackles

Sacks

Passes Defended

Pro Bowls

All-Pros

Willis

692

17

40

5

5

Lewis

723

19

38

4

4

Through five seasons, Willis matches up favorably with all-time great Ray Lewis. He has stats matching Lewis in virtually all measurables. Lewis does have something after five years Willis has yet to accomplish; a Defensive Player of the Year award, and a Super Bowl title, both of which came in his fifth year in the league.

Although Willis hasn't yet seen the post season success of Ray Lewis, Super Bowls aren't won on the backs of one player. After five seasons in the league, Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis are on virtually even ground.

The next comparison seems natural to make as well. How does Patrick Willis compare to his former Head Coach, Mike Singletary? Singletary was part of the dominant Chicago defenses of the mid-80s, including the vaunted 1985 defense. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (as a player, NOT a coach) in 1998.

Again, these stats are through the first five seasons for each man's career:

Tackles

Sacks

Pro Bowls

All-Pros

Willis

692

17

5

5

Singletary

620

11

3

2

Again, Willis matches up very favorably against an all time great middle linebacker. But once again, he was unable to match the individual brilliance of the fifth season. Singletary's fifth season was 1985, when he led the Bears' 46 defense which is still considered the greatest of all time. Like Lewis, Singletary won a Defensive Player of the Year Award and a Super Bowl in his fifth season in the league.

Singletary does fall short in early career production when compared to Willis. He didn't start for the Bears until the seventh game of his rookie season, and didn't make an All-Pro team until his third year in the league.

Although we have to do some extrapolation, Willis appears to have been a better pass defender as well. Although stats on defended passes in Singletary's first four seasons aren't available, he was credited with ten in 1985, compared to the twelve of Willis in his fifth season. Singletary also registered just seven interceptions for his twelve year career, while Willis already has five picks through five seasons.

So Willis compares favorably to Singletary and Lewis, but where does he compare to the man at the top of the totem pole, the man who defined the middle lineback position, the man who is still considered one of the ten best players of all time...to the incomparable Dick Butkus?

Tackles

Sacks

Pro Bowls

All-Pros

Willis

692

17

5

5

Butkus

--

--

5

5

Unfortunately, stats just weren't kept it Dick Butkus's playing days. NFL.com doesn't show a tackle or sack total for him, although it does show an astounding 22 interceptions in a career of just under nine seasons. Butkus also made the Pro Bowl team and was named an All-Pro his first five seasons, as did Willis. He toiled on a below average team for his first five seasons, as Willis did in four of his first five seasons. Butkus was known as a fierce hitter, who loved to strip the ball from unsuspecting ball carriers. Willis is also a big hitter who loves to strip the ball, earning 12 forced fumbles in his career so far.

Although the lack of stats (and the different eras they played in) makes a pure comparison of the two players impossible, Patrick Willis seems to hold up to a perfunctory comparison with the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history, Dick Butkus.

Let's take a look at just what makes Willis so fierce.

Lewis-esque Leadership

Before this article came out, I had a few people speculating on the top two players remaining. A lot of people guessed Willis would be one of the two, and a few thought having him above Justin Smith was a mistake.

Above all else, the reason I chose Patrick Willis over Justin Smith was the leadership he brings to the San Francisco defense. I'm a guy who's big on numbers, stats and anything else that can be measured, but sometimes, the immeasurable becomes indisputable.

Willis's coach from the University of Mississippi Ed Orgeron said about his former star linebacker:

"Patrick lead by example. He is not a big talker. He just gets in there and does his job every day and makes everybody around him better."

Quarterback Alex Smith had the following to say about his teammate for the previous five seasons:

"Patrick's stepped up as a leader. 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."

There are dozens of these quotes about Patrick Willis, from current and former teammates and coaches. Most people who are asked about him mention his leadership first, then his playmaking ability.

Justin Smith may have been the team MVP, but the leader of one of the best - and most intimidating - units in the league is Patrick Willis. And that's why he is #2 and Justin Smith is #3.

Singletary-esque Fundamentals

(This video has a pretty loud and annoying song. My apologies, but no way I was leaving this tackle out. Mute it if you need to.)

If someone were to come to me and say - "I've never seen Patrick Willis play. Please, show me a short video clip to describe everything about him. Also, if the clip has an annoying song playing which doesn't really fit, that would be great" - this is what I would show them.

Patrick Willis, above all else, is the most fundamentally sound linebacker in the league. He is always in his gap. He misses tackles at a rate of about 1-in-every-43. He wraps guys up. He is like the Tim Duncan of NFL defensive players.

In this play, Jackson hands off to all time great running back Adrian Peterson as the play develops towards the left side of the line. Willis reads the play, and gets through a gap while avoiding a clip from a Vikings' guard. Willis then shows perfect tackling fundamentals, getting his shoulder pads low, watching Peterson's hips, using his arms to wrap him up, and driving Peterson straight into the ground. This is an absolute clinic in how to tackle a shifty running back like Adrian Peterson.

Peterson averaged nearly five yards a carry during the season this play happened. Thanks to some fundamental tackling by Patrick Willis, Peterson ended up with nothing out of this run.

Butkus-esque Power

Is it blasphemous for me to compare Willis to Butkus for a second time? After a hit like this, I think not. Although this hit doesn't show Patrick Willis's brilliance as a defensive field general, it does show one of the characteristics of Willis that makes him so dangerous. When you see hits like this happen, players no longer want to go across the middle. If receivers know Willis is waiting for them, maybe they start hearing footsteps, and maybe they start dropping catchable balls.

Willis is, as usual, exactly where he should be - sitting in his zone, cutting off short routes, and waiting to stop anything thrown in front of him. Although there is nothing brilliant about this play, besides the ferocity of the hit, Willis is doing what he always does: his job.

The Hope

With the combination of power, fundamentals, and leadership, what hope is there for dealing with the threat that is Patrick Willis?

Sadly, the best hope for dealing with Patrick Willis may be the very thing that makes him such a terrifying player - the viciousness with which he plays. All of the linebackers mentioned above had some injury trouble shortly after their fifth season.

In his sixth season, Dick Butkus missed a game for just the second time in his career (and was retired a short three years later). Mike Singletary missed two games in the sixth season of his career after having missed time only once previously. Ray Lewis made it through his sixth season unscathed, but played just five games in his seventh season.

Patrick Willis already has a bit of an injury history, missing games in both 2010 and 2011. After never missing a game in his first three seasons, Willis had a hand injury that cost him two games in 2010, and then missed four more in 2011 with a bad hamstring.

Is all of this a coincidence? Most likely. Willis has shown remarkable health through most of his career, and hamstrings are common among all players at all positions. However, there could be more to it than a coincidence. The human body isn't meant to put out the type of force these guys hammer each other with, and linebackers like Willis collide with other large men - also running at full force - dozens of times a week. At some point, the punishment he hands out will catch up to him.

The other hope for dealing with Patrick Willis is to rebuild the offensive line. Much like Justin Smith, the Rams can't hope to deal with a destructive player like Patrick Willis with patchwork players and below average talent. They must have top players from top to bottom, and hope those players can come through when they are up against a guy like Willis.

In the end, dealing with Willis is a difficult task, made all the more difficult by all the talented players who surround him. St. Louis can't take advantage of his mistakes, because he doesn't make them. He doesn't miss tackles. He never gets moved out of his assigned gap. He is a perfect, football playing, wide receiver crushing machine.

The Rams' best hope for dealing with him may just be...

...to sweep the leg.

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