After a long month or so, we have come to the end of our player grades. And it is fitting that we bring it home with the 49ers outstanding inside linebacker, Patrick Willis. It was an intriguing year for the 49ers all-world linebacker in part because he faced some significant injury adversity for the first time in his NFL career. He was named to his fifth Pro Bowl and fourth first team All-Pro team in spite of the injuries. He was a deserving candidate while he was healthy, but his growing reputation likely helped overcome the fact that he missed close to four full games with his hamstring injury.
Aside from the injury, Willis saw some changes in his role. The most significant was a greater use in coverage on tight ends. Willis has operated in coverage at times in his career, but in the past that had been handled primarily by Manny Lawson. This season, Willis was given that role and he showed solid progress in his pass defense.
Although Willis' tackle totals were down, we can thank the amazing development of NaVorro Bowman in his second season. His progress has given the 49ers the best inside linebacker duo in the NFL at this point. Having that kind of athleticism in the middle of the defense is so huge. They have the ability to range far and wide across the field, which makes up for any shortcomings elsewhere.
Every year it seems like there is talk about utilizing Willis even more in the pass rush. He had a career high six sacks in 2010, but only two in 2011. He really was not asked to operate in a pass rush role, but it will be interesting if we get another offseason of coaching comments about using Willis more so in the pass rush. He and Bowman have the athleticism to make an impact there, but it is also possible the team is content with the players they do rush at this point.
- Tied for team lead with ten tackles to go along with a fumble recovery and pass deflection versus Seattle (9/11)
- Led team with 14 tackles versus Dallas (9/18), while also forcing a fumble
- Willis was awarded NFC Defensive Player of the Week for games played October 9-10 (Week 5) by the NFL. He led the team with 18 tackles and recovered his second fumble of the season versus Tampa Bay (10/9), which resulted in a Vernon Davis 14-yard touchdown reception. It also marked the first time Willis registered multiple fumble recoveries in a season
- Tied a career high recording three pass deflections at Detroit (10/16), including eight total tackles
- Recorded a sack on QB Colt McCoy versus Cleveland (10/30) in the fourth quarter for his first sack of the season
- Led team with 13 tackles, 2 FFs and 1 PD at Washington (11/6). His first FF was recovered by S Donte Whitner in the second quarter, which resulted in a TD on the ensuing play. Willis recorded his second FF of the game in the fourth quarter, marking his second career game with 2 FFs (versus Atlanta, 10/11/09)
- Registered his second sack of the season and 17th of his career after bringing down Giants QB Eli Manning for a nine-yard loss in the third quarter versus NYG (11/13)
- Notched his first interception of the season and fifth of his career after picking off Cardinals QB John Skelton in the first quarter versus Arizona (11/20). He also registered 3 PDs and his fourth FF of the season after stripping Cardinals RB Beanie Wells in the first quarter
- Recovered a loose ball on the Saints first drive of the game in the NFC Divisional Round matchup after Donte Whitner forced a Pierre Thomas fumble on the 49ers 2-yard line. Finished the day with ten tackles