Willis staking claim as top rookie defender?

He wears No. 52 on his chest. That's no mistake. As Patrick Willis roams the football field from sideline to sideline, speeding past potential blockers and slamming into ball carriers, he brings to mind another No. 52 that Mike Nolan coached at linebacker not too long ago with the Baltimore Ravens. Willis already is wowing everybody after just one NFL game, and his best certainly is still to come.

But Willis already is way ahead of the game without even looking into the future. He enters this week's pivotal NFC West clash against the Rams in St. Louis having already staked his claim to being the league's best rookie defender.

Nobody's putting San Francisco's first-year stud in the same class as an in-his-prime Ray Lewis just quite yet, but that name has been brought up a few times. Willis is just starting out as a professional, and he's already making plays and creating havoc all over the field.

San Francisco's first-round draft choice is such a natural that he forced his way into the starting lineup by the middle of the exhibition season, doing it at the expense of veteran Brandon Moore, the team's 2006 leader in both tackles and sacks who arguably was the 49ers' best defensive player last season.

But as Nolan says, that decision was made more "having to do with what the rookie has done and not as much to do with what Brandon Moore hasn't done."

That's the way it is with Willis, the No. 11 overall selection in the April draft. He's a tackling phenom, and there's nothing the 49ers can do but simply step aside in awe and let Willis take his rightful place in the middle of their defense.

It's where he belongs. Willis began his NFL career with a magnificent performance in San Francisco's season-opening 20-17 victory over Arizona earlier this week, finishing with a game-high 15 tackles and forcing a fumble with one of his signature hits. Willis was everywhere, and not only is he quickly establishing himself as a productive player, but also as one of the 49ers' very best defenders.

The NFL world is noticing. Willis was named the league's Week 1 Rookie of the Week in voting on NFL.com and via Sprint wireless services.

"He's very active, instinctive and athletic," Nolan said. "He covers a lot of ground and his athletic ability shows. The thing that is encouraging is some players will show flashes of brilliance and also flashes of stuff that is really bad. Patrick shows flashes of greatness and his bad plays are not off the chart. It's that way in practice as well as the preseason. That's why we didn't waste too much time trying to get him in there."

Wise decision. With his speed and wrecking-ball hitting ability, Willis already has become a dynamic presence in the San Francisco defense and a player that has sparked the overall improvement of a unit that limited Arizona to just 261 total yards.

Of the five new starters on defense this season - including four high-priced free-agent newcomers - Willis has made perhaps the most notable impression because of his propensity for always being around the football.

"When it's all said and done, my job is to go get the ball," Willis said. "It's to be physical, but I've also got to stop the ball. I'm a versatile linebacker, whether it be rushing or tackling or just making plays. Whatever it may be, I feel like I have a little bit to give in every aspect."

Willis was by far San Francisco's leader in tackles during the exhibition season with 32 - a full dozen more than any other player on the team - even though he started only two of the four games. By the time the regular season began, he'd become a centerpiece of San Francisco's defensive strategy.

And it's the little things, Nolan said, that have allowed Willis to make such an instant impact.

"He has very good instincts on the game and of where people are around him," Nolan said. "There are little things the naked eye normally wouldn't see. When things break down out there, some guys make plays and for some it's strategy and others athletic ability. And the rookie has shown he has all those things."

Willis also displayed Monday that he can be a terror on inside blitzes. But Nolan said he's hesitant to use him in that capacity, because with the great inside linebackers, you want them to remain in the middle of the action.

"He'll be a part of (San Francisco's blitz package), but not heavily," Nolan said. "It's kind of like Ray Lewis. Ray makes a lot of plays, but you don't blitz him a lot, because that forces him to commit to certain things. If you just let him find the ball, he is going to do things better than the defense you can call. There are certain kinds of players that you do that with. Now, if Willis is that kind of player, I don't know."

But time will tell. And it already is telling pretty fast.

Willis, for his part, just wants to accelerate the process.

"I can't say I'm the miracle to happen to this team, but I hope I can give them a little bit of something and show them why they made me their first selection," Willis said. "Each day I just want to do something better than I did the day before. It's just something I'm trying to establish with this organization, to just show them why they picked me and just show them I can play a little bit."

Willis already has shown the 49ers he can play a lot a bit, which is why he's doing just that from Week 1 of his rookie season, and quickly asserting himself as one of the best young defenders in the league.

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