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Patrick Willis: Shutdown Cover Linebacker

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Last Sunday's victory over the Detroit Lions featured a whole host of highlights and key performances on both sides of the ball. One of my favorite performances from the game was that of linebacker Patrick Willis. This season we have been talking more and more about fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, and rightfully so. Bowman has been an absolute monster inside next to Willis. He gets a ton of tackles and has a noise for the ball, particularly on receivers coming out of the backfield.

Amidst all this it has become a little too easy to overlook all of Patrick Willis' contributions. Since 2007 he has been a leader of the 49ers defense. While he is immensely talented, part of the issue has been question marks around him. Justin Smith has been a co-leader, but the contributions of NaVorro Bowman this season have made Bamm Bamm's life significantly easier.

Against the Lions, we got a chance to see the continued development of Willis as a coverage linebacker. Willis spent a sizable chunk of the game covering Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who happens to be a sizable individual. Pettigrew did get the touchdown while Willis was defending him, but even on that play Willis almost deflected the pass. Aside from that play, Willis had three separate pass deflections while defending Pettigrew all over the field.

He has always had skills to handle the coverage aspects of the game, but he seems to be taking it to a new level in 2011. More importantly, Vic Fangio is prepared to place more responsibilities on Willis in this area. It's almost like NaVorro Bowman has moved into Patrick's old role and Patrick has taken on a mix of more responsibilities. It's hard to describe the way his role appears to be changing a bit. Maybe that is just the benefit of playing with more talent than before?

On a side note, if you have not yet seen the E:60 segment (12 minutes long) on Patrick Willis that aired yesterday, you can view it online. There is also a portion you can read over at espn.com. I had some recollection of a somewhat tough childhood, but I never realized quite the extent of it. This is intense stuff but it also seems to provide some insight into why he is driven to be so great. The video actually left me a bit speechless.