SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 04: Patrick Willis #52 of the San Francisco 49ers lines up against the St. Louis Rams at Candlestick Park on December 4, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The New Orleans Saints will bring a whole host of offensive weapons to Candlestick Park, but arguably their most talented player is tight end Jimmy Graham. The statistics alone show what kind of talent he is. He finished the 2011 regular season with 99 receptions, 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. Beyond just the stats, you're talking about a guy who is 6'6, 260 pounds with very solid speed and leaping ability as good as anybody in the league. He needs to do this for more than one year, but if he can keep it up, his ceiling is as high as any tight end in the league.
Enough slobbering about the Saints. How about the guy who will be covering him? 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis will draw the primary assignment on Jimmy Graham. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner will get plenty of opportunities to help out, but Willis will be the first line of defense.
Football Outsiders ranks the 49ers sixth in defending against tight ends and much of that has to do with Patrick Willis and his filthy athleticism. Willis has been utilized more frequently this season to defend tight ends than in year's past. He did drop into coverage before, but Manny Lawson was often matched up against opposing tight ends. The emergence of NaVorro Bowman has allowed the 49ers to mix up how they use Patrick Willis and improved the defense accordingly.
Although Graham presents an incredibly tough matchup for the defense, there is something really cool about seeing Graham matching up with Willis. You have two players who can be absurdly dominant at their position matching up in a win-or-go-home situation. Willis was rusty in his return against the Rams, but hopefully he got that rust off. He cannot afford anything less than his best against a beast like Graham.
LB Patrick Willis
Press Conference - January 10, 2012
San Francisco 49ers
Can you talk about [QB] Drew Brees and why he's so difficult to stop?
"Drew Brees, he's a good quarterback, one of the best quarterbacks in this league. His perfection, his drive to be perfect is unbelievable. When you're playing against a quarterback like that, that has been a winner for a long time and won a Super Bowl, you have to come with everything you have and we're expecting to do that."
How much time have you spent on [TE] Jimmy Graham this week and have you seen anything like him this year?
"I feel like Jimmy Graham is a good tight end. All this year, we've faced some good tight ends with the teams we've played. He's certainly one of their offensive threats and we have to make sure that we know where he is at all times. At the end of the day we just have to play defense."
What did you work on after the last game and do you feel like you're back to where you want to be?
"Last game, I don't feel like it was my best game by far. I feel like it was great to get back out there and knock off some of the rust. I feel like these last two weeks of getting back out here, practicing, running and doing football again has really helped me. I'm really looking forward to this game this weekend and getting back on track."
Given they have so many offensive weapons, how important is it to focus in and contain Drew Brees?
"It's really big. Their offense is loaded from the offensive line to the skill guys. Certainly I feel like this will be probably the best team we face this year, but we look forward to it. We say, ‘You know what? What better way to be the best than to beat the best?' We know going into this game that it's going to be a fight, but we're looking forward to it."
Can you talk about the impact of LB Aldon Smith and what he's done and what he's helped you do?
"Aldon's had a tremendous rookie season so far. I pray this weekend that he can let it go again and he can make some big plays for us. Aldon is getting great pass rush and it helps you when you're in coverage and that's across the board. [DT] Justin [Smith], [LB] Parys [Haralson], [LB] Ahmad [Brooks], [DT] Ray [McDonald], all those guys have worked him all season and they continue to do that and he listens well, so look for big things out of him this weekend."
From a linebacker's standpoint, is this as diverse offense as you've faced this season?
"It is. This team we're playing this weekend, they are a complete team across the board from running backs, to the tight ends, to receivers. It's going to take a great defensive effort on our part, but really it's going to take the team and that's what we've been about all year. We're going to need all three phases to play great football to win this game. Last week we started preparing for them and this week we have to have a great week of practice and then we'll see what happens on Saturday."
What effect does it have on you as a great defensive player to hear about how great the other team is?
"Every week you hear about how someone that you're going to play is good. To me, I think every Sunday, each time you have the opportunity to play these guys, they're in the NFL for a reason. Regardless if we're playing the Saints or whoever else, we have to come out and play football. At the end of the day, I always put it on us. It's not so much about how the other team plays, it's about how we play."
What do you make of the contrast of these two teams-a top-ranked defense and an offense that puts up huge yards?
"It's going to be a battle. We know that and I'm sure they know that as well. They're going to do what they need to do to prepare to come in to play against us and we're going to do that same. We'll see where the chips lay when the game is over, but we're certainly going to come with everything we have. It's either win or go home."
How big is the fact that you're playing at home?
"It's big. When the Saints are playing at their place, they're an even better team. Hopefully getting them on the road, getting them here, having them at home, hopefully the crowd will play a big part in that. We're playing at home and we know it's either win or go home, so we have to come out and lay it all out on the line. We'll see what happens."
Do you guys see yourselves as the underdog going into this game?
"Certainly. No matter how many people say, ‘The 49ers can win and this and that,' we know in the back of their mind that they don't give us a chance to go out there and win that game, but it started day one of training camp. We know it's always been us, the guys in that locker room. It started with us believing in ourselves and knowing it's gotten us this far, so we're going to continue to do that and we'll see."
How has this 49ers team evolved from the first time you played the Saints in the preseason?
"I just think we are a more mature team and we understand more of our responsibilities and what we have to do as a team. I think we know how to win now. I just think that with time comes maturity, with time comes knowledge and as a football team, we certainly have gained that. Hopefully it plays to our advantage this weekend."
Does [RB] Darren Sproles remind you of any other running back, or is he unique?
"There's no doubt that he's a unique running back. For a guy his size, he does it all. He runs in between the tackles, outside, catches the ball really well. He's a complete running back. Certainly, we're going to have to know where he is at all times, but at the end of the day, we just have to line up and play the cards that we have in and execute those and may the best team win."
Can you talk about the maturity of the team and how the defense has grown around you this year?
"I think we've grown in the sense of just understanding that every time we step on that field it's a big game. Every time we step on that field, it's about not giving the other teams anything. It's something that [head] coach [Jim] Harbaugh talks about all of the time - cruelty. It's not giving another person what they want. That's our mindset on defense, to go out and play with everything we have and not give the other team anything. If they do get something, oh well, let's go and take it back."
Does playoff experience matter when you take the field on Saturday?
"I don't know and honestly, I really don't care. It's about us understanding what's at stake. It's about us continuing to play the way we have and turning it up even more. Sometimes if you've been somewhere before, you know what's at stake. But sometimes if you haven't, it can play in your favor, too, because it's just about playing football. No pressure, just go out and play."