Willis vs. Peterson could become freak show

Adrian Peterson calls Patrick Willis "a freak." He means it as the highest form of compliment. Willis knows all about what Peterson's saying. It's freakish football talent, something Peterson and Willis surely possess, which could lead to a freaky kind of thing Sunday when the two go helmet-to-helmet in a match-up of leading candidates for the NFL's offensive & defensive rookie of the year honors.

It's not often, after all, that two rookies face off in December when one is leading the NFL in rushing and the other is leading the league in tackles.

But that's what will happen Sunday in San Francisco when Peterson leads the surging Minnesota Vikings and the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack into Monster Park to face Willis and the struggling 49ers.

It'll be rookie phenom vs. rookie phenom, the NFL's most productive impact rookies on each side of the ball, and something's got to give. Peterson and Willis aren't just frontrunners for the league's year-end rookie awards – they're running away from the competition with a quarter of the season still to play.

"That'll be a fun one to watch," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It'll be a great match-up. I do think that is one of the more interesting challenges in this football game, because they will meet. They should meet quite a few times."

That's usually the way it is for Willis when a running back – or anybody else who happens to be toting the football – is in his area.

After two of the most productive games by a San Francisco defender since the NFL began keeping track of unofficial tackle statistics in 1994, Willis leads the NFL with 128 tackles according to league statistics. The 49ers, in coaches' review of game films, have Willis with 173 tackles this season. Willis quickly is closing in on Derek Smith's team record of 189 tackles with four games still remaining.

Peterson, as Minnesota's featured rusher, figures to add to that total when the two converge Sunday, just as he will add to his own gaudy rushing totals in what so far has been one of the greatest seasons ever by a rookie running back.

As much as Peterson and Willis have studied each other on film, they know each other even better than that. Willis got a pretty good idea Peterson was something special when the two worked out together in Arizona during the months leading up to the NFL draft, and at the same time Peterson developed something of an appreciation for what Willis has to offer, too.

"He's a freak," Peterson said Wednesday in a conference call with Bay Area media. "Working out with him, I saw the talent he has being a big guy. He's about 240 (pounds) and has speed and athleticism. The past two weeks, he has gotten 37 tackles. That's not normal."

Actually, Willis has recorded only 36 tackles the past two weeks – 18 each in games against the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers. It's the most tackles recorded in a game by a San Francisco player since the NFL began keeping track of unofficial tackles in 1994.

That recent flourish has given Willis a wide lead as the NFL's leading tackler – Houston's DeMeco Ryans and Denver's D.J. Williams each are 19 tackles behind him – and as such he's well aware of some of the freakish things Peterson is doing this season with the Vikings.

Despite missing two games, Peterson leads the NFL with 1,197 yards rushing and is first among the league's 50 leading rushers with a gaudy average of 6.5 yards per carry. He has produced six 100-yard games this year and set a new NFL single-game record when he rushed for 296 yards in a Nov. 4 upset of the San Diego Chargers.

Willis and Peterson got to know each other earlier this year at the Athletes Performance Institute facility in Tempe, Ariz., where they began training for the NFL Combine in February. They challenged each other during workouts and pushed each other to succeed.

It paid off for both players. Peterson was selected by the Vikings with the No. 7 overall selection in the first round of the April draft and Willis was selected shortly thereafter with the No. 11 by the 49ers.

"One thing I realized while working out with Patrick is that he is very competitive," Peterson said. "You don't really see that too much in guys that are as gifted as him as far as his speed being 4.3 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) at 240 pounds. He's strong as an ox. That's one thing I picked up on which made me respect him that much more. I definitely like his fearless style of play."

Willis is a little more low-key when handing out praise, and while this figures to be one of the sternest tests of the season for a San Francisco defense that has slipped to 26th in the NFL in rushing defense, Willis says he's preparing to face Peterson just like any other game.

"He's a great runner," Willis said. "He cuts, breaks tackles, runs hard. We really have to come in and be focused on just stopping the run, period. It's the same motivation that I've had for the last 13 weeks, to come out and be the very best I can be each game. Every week the running back is the best running back in the league because that's the running back we're facing that week."

But even Willis senses it could be a bit different this week when he and Peterson lock helmets.

"He runs hard and I like to say I tackle hard," Willis said. "So we'll have to see if it happens on game day. I am sure it's bound to happen."

And when it does, it could be a freak show of the highest order.


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