Niner of the Week

Linebacker Patrick Willis is SFI's Niner of the Week for his perfomance in the 49ers' 35-0 rout of the St. Louis Rams.

Sunday standout: In leading the San Francisco defense to its first shutout in 119 games, Willis became the first player in franchise history and just the third NFL player since the sack became an official statistic in 1982 to have 2.5 sacks and an interception return for a touchdown in the same game. Willis began his big day in the opening quarter by stopping Rams running back Steven Jackson for a 1-yard gain on St. Louis' second series and then thwarting the Rams' third drive with a sack of quarterback Kyle Boller for a six-yard loss that put St. Louis back in a third-and-14 situation. But Willis was only getting started. He and Manny Lawson combined for a sack of Boller on St. Louis' first offensive play of the second half, setting the tone for the rest of the game. On the Rams' next possession, Willis changed the complexion of the game by stepping in front of receiver Keenan Burton on a third-and-8 play for an interception that Willis returned 23 yards for a touchdown that lifted San Francisco's lead from 14-0 to 21-0. Willis displayed his keen instincts on the play, staying at home in the middle of the field, then reading Boller as the quarterback looked right and then threw back across the field to his left – where Willis was waiting to jump on his throw. Willis completed his star performance with three tackles in the fourth quarter, including a stop of Jackson for a three-yard loss after a swing pass and dropping Boller for a sack and loss of eight yards back to the St. Louis 4-yard line to doom St. Louis' final possession just before the two-minute warning. When the game finally ended, Willis had recorded 11 tackles to go with a career-high 2.5 sacks, the second interception return for a touchdown of his career, three quarterback hits and three tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Season to date: Willis ranks seventh in the NFL with 37 tackles (according to league figures) and is third with 29 solo stops. He is tied seventh in the NFC with 2.5 sacks and is tied for fifth in the NFL and fourth in the NFC with two interceptions, a figure that leads all NFL linebackers. Willis began the season with a 14-tackle effort that included an interception against Arizona and had a career-high three passes defensed the next week against Seattle. His five passes defensed so far this season are the most by any NFL defender with 25 or more tackles. One quarter of the way into the season, Willis leads the 49ers in tackles (38, according to team figures), tackles for loss (6), sacks (2.5) and interceptions (2).

Need to note: Willis leads the NFL in tackles with 352 (according to league statistics) since he entered the league as San Francisco's first-round draft pick in 2007. He is averaging 9.8 stops per game during that time. He set a franchise record with 226 tackles (according to team statistics) and led the NFL in that category as a rookie and was third in the league last year with 185. In his 36 games with the 49ers, Willis has recorded 10 or more tackles in a game 28 times, nine or more 31 times, and 20 or more four times. According to NFL statistics, Willis has four of the top seven individual-game tackle totals in the league since 2007. He also leads all NFL linebackers in passes defensed since 2007 with 13, and his 86-yard interception return for a touchdown last year against Seattle is the longest in franchise history by a linebacker.

Willis says: "It's one of the better games I've had since I've been in the league, but there is still so much more to improve on and I still feel like I left some plays out there as an individual, as well as part of the team. It takes all of us together to play good football, and when you're always doing the right things, then people stand out. And last week was the game for me, and I'm sure the time will come when there will be other guys that will jump out as well."

Coach Mike Singletary says: "Patrick had a great day. Wow. Just wow would be the only thing I can say… Wow, because he has so much talent. But Pat is still just scratching the surface. He just has to tie his talent and knowledge together and that's where he's going to take it to the next level."

Linebacker Takeo Spikes says: "It's one of the top performances that I've seen from an inside linebacker in a long, long time and would be one of the most memorable games by a linebacker that I've ever been associated with. Patrick just means so much to the team. He was one of the biggest reasons I decided to come here."

Looking forward: Willis will continue to be the centerpiece of a San Francisco defense that has climbed to sixth in the NFL in total defense this week. With Willis leading the charge, the 49ers rank fourth in the league against the run, and they'll get a test in that area this week against the Atlanta Falcons, who ranked second in the NFL last year in rushing offense.

ALSO CONSIDERED: QB Shaun Hill (14 of 24 passing for 152 yards and two TDs, 104.9 passer rating); LB Takeo Spikes (11 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss); SS Michael Lewis (13 tackles), TE Vernon Davis (three receptions for 43 yards, 13-yard TD catch).

2009 NOTW LIST: Week 1: LB Patrick Willis. Week 2: RB Frank Gore. Week 3: TE Vernon Davis. Week 4: LB Patrick Willis.

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