Sunday standout: Willis set a new season high with a game-high 13 official tackles – which the 49ers unofficially increased to 15 tackles after a coaches' review of game film – to lead San Francisco in that category for the fifth time in six games this season. Five of Willis' tackles stopped a New York ball carrier for a gain of three or fewer yards, and one of Willis' best stuffs of the day came when he stood up running back Reuben Droughns for no gain when the Giants had a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Willis also showed his speed and prowess in getting to the football on passing downs while making several tackles down the field after the Giants had completed passes.
Season to date: Willis is off to one of the best starts ever by a San Francisco defender, and certainly one of the best ever for a rookie. He currently leads the NFL in tackles per game with 10.5 and his 63 total tackles through six games rank second in the NFL to Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud, who has 66 tackles in seven games. Willis began the season with 11 tackles – 15 after coaches' review – in his professional debut against Arizona, and has come on strong in his last three games with 12 official tackles Sept. 30 against Seattle, 12 on Oct. 7 against the Ravens and 13 against the Giants. The 49ers have Willis with double-digit tackle totals in every game this season – 15 in Week 1 against Arizona, 10 each in Week 2 at St. Louis and Week 3 at Pittsburgh, then a season-high 16 each in Week 4 against Seattle and Week 5 against Baltimore. For the season, the 49ers have Willis with 82 tackles – 50 of them solo – which has him on a pace to smash the team single-season record of 189 set by Derek Smith in 2003. At his current pace, Willis would finish with 219 tackles this season. He's on a pace to finish with 168 tackles, according to the NFL's official statistics.
Need to note: Willis was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Week after the first two games of the season for his performance in victories over the Cardinals and Rams. Dating back to 1976, no rookie 49ers linebacker has begun his career with four consecutive games of double-digit tackles. That includes former first-round selections Manny Lawson (2006), Julian Peterson (2000), Keith DeLong (1989), Todd Shell (1989) and Cas Banaszek (1967). Willis currently is on a pace to break the all-time unofficial NFL record of 214 total tackles by Hardy Nickerson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1993. Willis, who also was SFI's Niner of the Week for his performance in Week 5 against Baltimore, becomes the first 49er to garner the honor twice this season.
Willis says: "I don't know if I've reached a comfort level yet, but I have reached a stage so far that I've been able to calm down a little bit. At the beginning of the season, I was nervous and every play I was like, ‘Whoa, everything is moving so fast and so quick.' Now it's like things have calmed down a little bit. I'm able to see and read and react a little bit better. But I still have a long ways to go. I'm just out there doing my job and having fun being here every day with these guys. I love being out there and I just want to give this team everything I've got. So that's what I do. But I just feel like I have yet to play my best game, that game I'm capable of playing. The thing is, I don't know if I'll ever be able to reach that."
Coach Mike Nolan says: "He's made very good progress. He started off the season making a lot of plays, and he's continued to do that. He does a very good job for a rookie. He's got a lot on his plate and he does what very few veterans even do as far as amount. He's got things to work on, but he's got very good instincts and he travels fast. You put the two together and you can make a lot of plays, and that's what he's done so far."
Linebacker Derek Smith says: "He's very gifted athletically and he's got some pop to him. If he keeps doing the things he needs to do, he'll progressively get better and better. He's a guy who has a chance to be a superstar."
Looking forward: As the catalyst of San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme from his middle linebacker position, Willis figures to continue being a veritable tackle machine as the season progresses and he continues his development in the system. He figures to challenge for the NFL lead in tackles the remainder of the season and should be in the thick of the running for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and other honors by the end of the year. At this point, he appears to be one of San Francisco's leading candidates for Pro Bowl consideration.
ALSO CONSIDERED: RB Frank Gore (season-high 88 yards rushing, 6.3 average, three receptions, 111 yards rushing and receiving); WR Arnaz Battle (game-high totals of six receptions and 57 receiving yards, 17-yard touchdown reception); P Andy Lee (52.6 average with 45.4 net on five punts, two placed inside 20); LB Derek Smith (seven tackles, one interception deep in San Francisco territory that led to 49ers' first touchdown)
2007 NOTW LIST: Week 1: WR Arnaz Battle. Week 2: RB Frank Gore. Week 3: DE Marques Douglas. Week 4: P Andy Lee. Week 5: LB Patrick Willis. Week 6: No selection (49ers bye week). Week 7: LB Patrick Willis.
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