When a player makes the Pro Bowl every season of his seven-year career, it launches expectations to unrealistic heights; unattainable perfection hangs in the balance, waiting to dip.
Well, for at least a handful of observers, 2013 represented that dip in perfection for linebacker Patrick Willis. Keep in mind this is no slight to Willis. For one, he is, in fact, only human despite plenty of evidence suggesting the notion that he was developed and constructed in a scientific lab. Secondly, Patrick Willis at even 70% effectiveness is still superior to the majority of the league’s linebackers. He still made the Pro Bowl for christ's sake. When missing out on an All-Pro selection for the first time in your career signals a decline, you're firmly entrenched in the ranks of football immortality.
Nevertheless, let’s take a look back on some of the struggles in 2013, temper them with explanation, and look ahead to what we can expect from the heart and soul of the 49ers defense in 2014.
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Willis’ 2013 campaign hit a significant speed bump before it even began. After sustaining a fracture to his right hand during a practice session in late July, Willis was forced to forego the rest of the preseason recuperating. He was, however, ready for the season opener against Green Bay, much to the relief of fans and coaches. Once the season commenced, Willis' output was significantly more subdued than normal. In the 49ers' first three games, Willis' stat line was nothing more than 19 combined tackles. A meager number compared to his usual output, and no sacks, passes defended, interceptions, or forced fumbles to boot. His quiet beginning was largely obscured by the team's early-season adversity. The headlines coming out of San Francisco dissected what was wrong with the team as a whole and how they could climb out of a 1-2 rut.
As if things weren't already off to a rocky start for Willis, he injured his groin in that Week 3 loss to the Colts, forcing him out of action for the following two games. Upon his return, it was clear that Willis just wasn't his usual self. Although not blindingly glaring, those close to the team could tell something was amiss. He was a step slower in coverage, the ferocity in his hits just wasn't there, and with the wild success of NaVorro Bowman alongside him, that slip in production was magnified all the more. The season wore on with much of the same from Willis.
Then, all of a sudden, the light switch turned on and the former first-round pick reemerged. The 18-tackle spectacle he put on against the Falcons in Candlestick's finale was a fitting sendoff for the stadium and a welcome reintroduction back to the kind of play that Willis has built his reputation on. No longer getting lost in the mix of the rest of the star-studded defense, Willis was the force of old; his play in that game popped off the screen. The range from sideline to sideline was back; the burst and intensity were all on full display, as evidenced on a particular play in which he burst through the middle, leveled Steven Jackson in the backfield, and lost his helmet in the process. For those who may have forgotten just how impressive that game was for the product out of Mississippi, Niners Nation's own David Neumann compiled a great breakdown back in December which can be found here.
Willis' performance at season's end was both reassuring and an indicator that not all was right with his health for much of the season. It also showed just how much is expected of him on the field, considering that the 2013 season would have been considered a pretty solid one by other players' standards.
Entering 2014, the pressure will be on. With NaVorro Bowman on the mend from ACL surgery until at least mid-season, the Niners will heavily rely on the six-time All Pro as they did in 2007-2010, before Bowman arrived in the starting lineup. While it's a huge loss not having Bowman available for that period of time, it will put Willis back into the sole spotlight of the linebacking corps. Although Willis never lacks for work ethic or motivation, reprising the role of being the lone force in the middle again may fuel an even more intense desire and determination in 2014.
Thus far, it appears the job alongside Wills is Michael Wilhoite's to lose. He played very capably while Willis nursed that strained groin in 2013 so hopefully that carries over into next year. The duo will be tested this season as they face off against several high-profile running backs, including: Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris, Jamaal Charles, and Matt Forte among others.
Another interesting element of the 2014 season (as it pertains to Willis' outlook) is how the 49ers new-look secondary performs and its impact on how opponents attack San Francisco's defense. For the past three years, running against the 49ers was by and large a futile effort. Teams responded by trying to attack through the air and the 49ers counteracted this by usually only rushing four lineman and keeping extra man in the defensive backfield for added coverage. If the 49ers struggle in the secondary, how will they have to adapt their scheme and the roles of other positions to accommodate it? When the 49ers have shown different wrinkles in their defensive approach during the Fangio era, they have found success in rushing Willis and Bowman up the middle on passing downs. Might we see some more of this next year to keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks and help the secondary?
2014 features Willis in the unfamiliar quest for a bounce-back year at a time when the 49ers will need him at his best. At 29 years of age, he's still in the thick of his prime for a position that is relatively kind to players through a large portion of their 30's. If Willis maintains his health and Wilhoite holds his own alongside him, expect a revitalized campaign from the eight-year veteran akin to the show he put on against Atlanta in December. His training regimen, dedication, and physical prowess would allow for no less. But the absence of Bowman, an unproven secondary, and the ever-present risk of health will come into play next season; how it all unfolds makes for a intriguing storyline as we march toward September.