San Francisco 49er Linebacker Patrick Willis is a two-time All-Pro and one of the game's best defenders. He can do it all and does it all well, just like his coach and former NFL linebacker Mike Singletary.
Willis shows outstanding read and reaction abilities. He's explosive to the ball against the run and effective in pass coverage. His instincts and range are better than anyone. He can also get after the quarterback and that's where I want to concentrate.
While he is not a sack machine, Willis does lead the Niners with 2 1/2 sacks in six games. He has been particularly effective when he rushed up the middle of the offensive line. Keeping an eye on Willis and picking it up when he starts darting toward the quarterback is essential.
From their 3-4 defense San Francisco likes the pass rush abilities of their right side — RE Justin Smith, ROLB Parys Haralson and Willis. So they'll do things to take advantage of each player's skills.
One method is a delayed blitz by Willis. Here ROLB Parys Haralson uses his edge rush to engage the left tackle and get him wide, RE Justin Smith's interior pass rush moves make the left guard commit and the NT Aubrayo Franklin or Ray McDonald occupies the center. Then Willis in that split-second judges spacing and picks his opening — shoot between the tackle and guard or the guard and center? Other times, it's not a delay. He just comes.
49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will want to disguise what exactly Willis is doing. It will be up to Colts QB Peyton Manning and C Jeff Saturday to figure out those disguises and assign a blocker to Willis when he does blitz.
San Francisco knows blitzing Manning can be playing with fire. They also know they can't let him sit in the pocket all afternoon and pick them apart. So while I do not expect to see Willis rushing the passer all day, I do expect him to pick his spots.
The Niners don't like to move Willis around too much, but will if they think they can take advantage of a matchup. So opportunities may arise where RGs Mike Pollak/Kyle Devan are called upon to pick up a blitzing Willis. If and when Willis comes from his normal RILB spot, however, it will likely be LG Ryan Lilja's assignment. Other times it might fall on RB Joseph Addai or H-back Gijon Robinson to pick him up.
Lilja — or whoever is in the gap Willis comes through — must get a solid knee bend and hold up strong at the point, meeting Willis head on. He can't allow him to use his speed, strength or combination of both to dictate. Once Willis gains even the tiniest of upper hand in positioning, he has won the battle.
San Francisco knows getting an actual sack on Manning is not easy, but forcing him into a decision before he wants or hurrying him into an incompletion or a short check down can be just as effective.
C Jeff Saturday vs. NT Aubrayo Franklin (running plays):So far in 2009, 49ers NT Aubrayo Franklin is receiving some rave reviews from coaches and line mates: "Along the defensive line, the goal is to funnel a running back into a linebacker's waiting arms. That begins with the nose tackle, Aubrayo Franklin, who coaches and players alike say is having the best season of his career," writes the Sacramento Bee. "He's played very well, and he's considered by me to be one of the better nose tackles in the league," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky told the Bee.
DE Justin Smith also told the Bee, "There are few guys on the D-line that understand the D-line inside and out where your help is, where the other 10 guys are going. When you get a guy that not only understands his job but what his job is inside the framework of the defense, he can really exploit and make plays, and that's what Aubrayo is doing."
Franklin is tough to move off the ball due his low center of gravity and inside stacking ability. As Brad Keller notes, Franklin's game is penetration and gap disruption not eating up space and blockers. Against the run, he's strong and knows how to play with leverage.
Colts center Jeff Saturday has never been a consistent overpowering-type of run blocker who easily moves powerful nose tackles off the line of scrimmage. What he does do well is use his technique, leverage, intelligence, and work ethic to hold his ground and not let the defender gain the advantage in any situation.
The key question is when the Colts run — can Jeff Saturday handle Franklin without help from one of the guards? If Saturday is able to do that, the Colts' running game should yield plenty of positive yards between the tackles. That's something Indianapolis seems to be doing better this year with a healthy Saturday and Lilja, but running successfully against the 49ers is easier said than done. As a unit, they're allowing a mere 3.3 yards per rush attempt and have not let an opposing back over the 100-yard mark this season.
Like a lot of big nose tackles, Aubrayo lacks a good first step, is not blessed with much overall speed or an array of inside pass rush moves, so he's not a great pass rusher. For him it's all power and using the bull rush to create inside pressure. He is not the type of NT who requires frequent double teams in pass protection.
This is a good thing, especially if the 49ers are disguising blitzing linebackers. San Francisco will regularly counter by replacing Franklin in passing situations with a better interior rusher like a Ray McDonald or Justin Smith.
RT Ryan Diem vs. LOLB Manny Lawson (passing situations):
In his first three professional seasons, OLB Manny Lawson often came off the field in passing situations. That was a tad odd considering rushing the passer was something Lawson excelled in college. As Craig Massei wrote in his early season column for SFI, "A lot more was expected from Lawson after he came out of college considered as one of the nation's top pass-rushing prospects. This year promises to be different as a healthy Lawson will be featured as a pass rusher."
Now in his fourth season, the expectations have increased. "I'm a better Manny Lawson now," he told Massei. "My role here suits me now. I'm going to get to rush more and I'm expecting things to happen for me. I want to be a high-sack guy, especially now that I've got the opportunity to be showcased."
Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky had this to say about his linebacker: "He's progressing quite well but he needs to keep it going," Manusky noted. "He's going to be coming off the edge in our sub-package. He's an explosive player who's got those long arms and a long reach and he takes a sight line and he goes."
Lawson will look to use those arms and that reach to his advantage against Colts RT Ryan Diem. The lanky Lawson hasn't quite figured out how to consistently control the point of attack. He'll hope to use his overall quickness and burst to disrupt Diem. Diem has the size to control Lawson and shows decent lateral range movement. That's very important against a rusher like Lawson.
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