One position where a huge opportunity presented itself this preseason is at inside linebacker. 49ers all-world linebacker Patrick Willis suffered a hand fracture that is likely going to keep him sidelined through the preseason. The general belief is that Willis will be fine by Week 1 of the regular season, but his absence provides an opportunity for the 49ers reserve linebackers.
Michael Wilhoite has earned as big an opportunity as anybody on the roster, getting first team snaps in place of Willis. The 49ers signed Wilhoite to their practice squad in December 2011. Wilhoite went undrafted that previous April, and spent time in the UFL with the Omaha Nighthawks. He finished the season with the 49ers, and then signed a reserve/future contract after the season. He made it to the final cuts in 2012 training camp before getting cut and signed back to the practice squad. He was promoted to the 53-man roster in late November, and was active for the final five games of the regular season.
The team is obviously impressed with his work, and he is now taking advantage of his new playing time opportunity. Through two games, he is getting some serious snaps. In Week 1 against the Broncos, he led the defense with 53 snaps. In Week 2 against the Chiefs, he was down to 34 snaps, but still among the team leaders. He started with the first team, and stuck around when the second team defense came on the field, playing through the first half, and one series of the second half.
I went back through the game and took a look at his defensive snaps. Assessing play on film can give us some general ideas, but it is hard to get too specific when we don't know the specific assignments. After all, we don't know when a pass that didn't involved a player was actually a play where that player blew an assignment. Additionally, without the coaches' film in the preseason, we cannot get the best angles.
That being said, we can get some general notions based on what we see. As I re-watched Wilhoite's snaps, I took some brief notes. Rather than go into detail on every play, I've posted the notes below on his 34 snaps.
Overall, Wilhoite seems like a solid option backing up Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. He doesn't have the jets of Willis, but how many people do? Wilhoite made the necessary plays, and generally was successful at his job. I saw one play where a bit of over-pursuit cost the 49ers a first down. He got faked out on a couple play action plays, but while noticeable, I don't think it's the end of the world. The 49ers are in good shape with Wilhoite behind Willis and Bowman.
Snap 1: Dropped in coverage - pass to Bowman's guy
Snap 2: Rushed Alex Smith - designed rollout, but pushed toward sideline throw away
Snap 3: Run - didn't do much
Snap 4: Run - Could have done better job staying in lane - Knile Davis spun to the right and through hole for first down on 4th down
Snap 5: Run - no involvement
Snap 6: Pass - dropped in coverage on TE Travis Kelce - Was playing off him on quick out, so Wilhoite didn't get over in time, but Kelce dropped it.
Snap 7: Pass - Coverage of slot option, Alex rolled the other way so Wilhoite was not involved
Snap 8: Pass - dropped in coverage, Perrish Cox blitzed untouched and sacked Smith
Snap 9: Run - Seemed out of play, but used second effort to get to the ball carrier right as Nate Stupar was getting the tackle
Snap 10: Pass - dropped in coverage, not in on play
Snap 11: Run - offensive lineman had good push on him toward sideline
Snap 12: Run - OL tried to block Wilhoite at second level but used poor technique. Wilhoite bounced off the tackle and was part of the group that tackled Davis
Snap 13: Pass - good coverage on RB out of the backfield, Smith threw elsewhere
Snap 14: Pass - Wilhoite seemed in a sort of zone, although possible man coverage, hard to tell - Smith went deep incomplete to Baldwin
Snap 15: Run - Offset I, Smith did very quick fake to FB going right and then pitched to Davis running left - Davis did quick counter step to right before going left, Wilhoite bit on the fake - recovered but not sure he was going to get to Davis on the sideline even without biting on the fake
Snap 16: Pass - Dropped into coverage, pass was not near his part of the field
Snap 17: Pass - Dropped into coverage on tight end, pass was swing pass away from him
Snap 18: Pass - Dropped into coverage on tight end, pass was away from him, but seemed like solid enough coverage
Snap 19: Pass - Went to cover tight end on opposite side of line as Nick Moody was blitzing from that side - Smith completed quick pass for first down
Snap 20: Pass - Screen to Davis, Wilhoite was blocked out of the play by the center
Snap 21: Run - Maintained discipline on his gap and tackled Cyrus Gray for 1-yard gain
Snap 22: Run - Blocked well by left guard at second level
Snap 23: Pass - Had coverage on Anthony Fasano. Smith underthrew it - seemed like decent coverage, but couldn't tell for sure from the camera angle
Snap 24: Run - blocked out of play on 2-yard gain
Snap 25: Pass - Had coverage on TE Tony Moeaki - Smith sacked before developed too much
Snap 26: Pass - Appears to drop into zone coverage - Smith scrambles for six yards, away from where Wilhoite would have made a play
Snap 27: Pass - In coverage, looked like he was expecting a running back or tight end to run a route, but it was more protection - Smith sacked, no Wilhoite involvement
Snap 28: Pass - In coverage on Bowe as he came over the middle. Bowe ran left, Smith threw and Wilhoite dove to break up the pass
Snap 29: Pass - Appears to be in zone coverage, pass away from his zone
Snap 30: Pass - Part of blitz, Smith threw quick pass out to running back incomplete
Snap 31: Pass - Faked out on play action pass - Daniel rolled right and threw dump-off, Wilhoite not involved at that point
Snap 32: Pass - play action kept him in the box, Daniel threw to receiver outside
Snap 33: Run - Good blocking allows Gray to gain seven yards, Wilhoite gets the tackle
Snap 34: Pass - Dropped into coverage, quick sack by Nate Stupar