The 49ers and Ravens face off tomorrow night in what I can only compare to a heavyweight title fight where players will be exchanging blows for 60 minutes. It will be force against force; a battle of wills backed by strategic emphasis. There has been discussion about the similarities between the two teams since the schedule has been released, especially in relation to the head coaches.
What I am looking forward to is two great defenses taking the field, led by men of similar talent and ability. On Thursday night, Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens and Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers will be hoping to lead their respective teams to a victory. Both of these men project greatness at a position that has had legendary players over the sport's history.
However, and I may be bold by suggesting Willis will already be in this category, but we could be looking at not one, but two Hall of Famers at the inside linebacker position. Willis and Lewis are very similar in their style and ability; Willis even chose to wear #52 because it has been donned by Lewis during his career.
These two hit hard and hit a lot - they thrive on carnage and often it leads to victory, or at least a respectable statistical performance. But what is perhaps greater than their ability is their character. Lewis and Willis are those kinds of athletes who remain humble, despite their indisputable level of success. I believe it keeps them focused and by refusing satisfaction, they continue to get better every day.
To get better every day has been Lewis' philosophy for as long as I can remember. And as I have been entrenched in the 49er world, it has become clear that Willis prides himself on a similar philosophy. Whether it was Rex Ryan, Mike Smith, Marvin Lewis or Mike Singletary, Lewis has always had a thirst for knowledge...knowledge for the game. He is constantly learning and becoming better. Physically, as he ages, there will be a natural decline but from an awareness and football IQ standpoint, Lewis is as elite as they come.
Willis has had multiple coordinators and coaches in his time in San Francisco, and based on his increase in performance, he has apparently been a sponge like Lewis. He has absorbed the lessons and tweaks to his game as if he is yet to reach his peak. Although a perennial Pro Bowler, Willis cuts his teeth during practice and makes sure his teammates are doing the same.
This is the mark of a true leader - he who makes those around him better. Much of the 49ers defense has improved, and not just because of the addition of this offseasons acquisitions but because we are 4 years into Willis' already remarkable career. Willis has no doubt raised the level of players in practice and now he has become more vocal as a leader.
Before Lewis' arrival, there were other marquee players but as time passed, Ray stepped in accordingly. When his time came to be a leader, he seized it and now the league has what is known as one of the better defenses of all time. With Lewis, the Ravens defense has been getting it done for a decade and still continue their dominance. I have expected the same from Willis since his second year and now it appears that time has come.
The league's top two defenses will be taking the field tomorrow evening for a clash of epic proportions. The stage has been set for perhaps the game of the year, and it is unlikely to disappoint. Both of these teams have too much heart, too much talent and too much ambition to disappoint onlookers. If you are sifting through 1 of 100 reasons to watch the game, I like #52.
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