Chip Off the Linebacker Block

Mike Singletary's protege, Patrick Willis, and a quarterback named Smith lead the San Francisco 49ers into Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

When George Seifert was coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he had the highest of praise for Mike Singletary.

"Mike is the modern-day Ray Nitschke," Seifert said when comparing the great middle linebackers of the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. "He has set the standard for what coaches and scouts look for in inside linebackers."

Singletary was a first-year inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998. Now the head coach of the 49ers, Singletary obviously knows a little something about the position. And he's got one of the NFL's best in Patrick Willis.

"Talking about what he brings out on the field, that jumps out at anybody that knows anything about defensive football," Singletary told Packers beat reporters in a conference call on Wednesday. "I think he's just a kid that continues to get better. I think as far as what he is off the field, he's to me just a paradox. He's a guy that just goes out and lets it all hang out and he plays like a guy possessed. Off the field, he's one of the nicest guys you ever want to meet. You would think that he doesn't even play football if you sat down and talked with him. He's just a genuine, lovable, respectable kid."

Willis, the 11th choice of the 2007 draft, was named defensive rookie of the year, is a two-time All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowler. Singletary called Willis a "rare" talent because of his speed, and Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin raved about Willis' sideline-to-sideline ability. Willis has recorded 10-plus tackles in 42 of 59 career games heading into Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

"It's been unbelievable," Willis, in his conference call, said of working with Singletary. "It's been a great experience thus far. Every time he speaks to me, it's something new. It feels great to hear him give me insider tips and just tell me (to) just play the game the way you know how to play it."

Willis was just 3 when Singletary retired so the pupil never saw the mentor play. But Willis knows all about "Samurai Mike."

"I didn't know a whole lot about him. I knew the name, knew that he was a great defensive player for the Bears," Willis said. "I had him in the Senior Bowl. Before I went to the Senior Bowl, I did a whole background check on him as far as where he was from, what type of person he was, where he's been, where he's played, where he's coached, so I'd have an understanding of who he was."

While Willis is the quarterback of the 49ers' defense, Smith is the quarterback of the offense. However, that would be Troy Smith — the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State — and not Alex Smith, whom the 49ers selected No. 1 overall in 2005 rather than Aaron Rodgers.

Troy Smith
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Alex Smith had a combined 19 touchdowns and 31 interceptions in his first three seasons but took a big step forward last season, with 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 60.5 percent accuracy and a passer rating of 81.5. Rather than take another step forward this year, Smith was benched after seven games, with the NFC West favorites foundering at 1-6 and Smith struggling with nine touchdowns, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 75.0

Singletary benched him in favor of Troy Smith, who isn't Alex Smith's peer in any way physically. But the 6-foot Troy Smith has provided a spark. While his numbers are nothing special (84.2 rating, 55.4 percent, three touchdowns, two interceptions), the 49ers are 3-1, with wins over Denver (in London), St. Louis and at Arizona to pull within one game of St. Louis and Seattle in the comically bad division. The loss was a 21-0 thumping at home against Tampa Bay in which Smith admitted to being overwhelmed from an X's and O's perspective.

Accordingly, there's no doubt Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will dial up an aggressive game plan in an attempt to create the same kind of confusion. Singletary's defenses are renowned for being aggressive, too, which means a good, old-fashioned NFC Central-style slugfest could be in the works on a cold day in December.

"Every time I head north as the weather gets cooler there's always a thought in the back of my mind," Singletary said. "You spend so much time there and so many memories there. It always brings back a lot of memories."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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