Patrick Willis on 49ers’ 7-1 Start: “We love the feeling of winning because it’s something we haven’t done in a long time.”

November 8, 2011 – 9:00 am by Michael Bean

Nobody is much surprised by Patrick Willis’s great start to the 2011 NFL season. As one of the NFL’s very best linebackers, that’s come to be expected of the fourth year tackling machine out of Ole Miss. The play of the San Francisco 49ers’ defense however has far exceeded expectations so far through eight games. The 49ers are 7-1 at the midway point, having won their last six games thanks to stingy defense, good ball protection and just enough timely plays on offense and special teams to win. In San Francisco’s latest win, a 19-11 road win against the Washington Redskins, Willis totaled 13 tackles in the win (9 solo, 4 assists), and forced two fumbles, both of which the 49ers recovered. Willis has 67 tackles at the midway point of San Francisco’s season, tops on the team. He’s also defended eight passes so far, an impressive mark that has him on pace to smash his career high of 10 passes defended set back in 2008. Pencil him in for yet another Pro Bowl. Assuming, of course, he’s not tied up in Indianapolis preparing for this year’s Super Bowl.

Willis joined 97.5 The Game in San Francisco to talk about the tremendous play of fellow middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman, feeling great about the 49ers chances of being a complete team during training camp, the improving play of the secondary after being one of the defense’s weak links previously, the challenges the Giants will pose when they come to town next Sunday, being excited to play against his former college teammate Eli Manning, why the 49ers are excelling so much more in this year’s 3-4 defense compared to the one ran in 2010 under different coaches, and why he’s confident in the offense’s progression and ability to carry the team on its back when its needed most.

On playing alongside NaVorro Bowman, who’s impressed by his stellar play so far in 2011:

“Man, I just think that NaVorro is a tremendous athlete, period. He’s a guy who,  after getting to know him a little bit, didn’t get to play a lot at Penn State. And I’m just like ‘how did this guy not get more playing time than he did?’ But I’m just very happy that he’s with us, and it’s been a pleasure playing beside him.”

At what point did he and the 49ers defense think they had a chance to be the anchor of a very good 49ers team:

“Honestly, I think we’ve had that since the beginning of training camp. We knew it was going to take all three phases to win. Certainly on defense, if the offense scores points, if we get up, then we have to be able to hold the opponent to not be able to score, and we take pride in that. We’ve got a bunch of guys who are unselfish guys that all believe in the same thing and are getting the job done.”

On the play of the secondary finally catching up to the rush defense, which for several years now has been solid:

“Man it’s unbelievable. When the ball is in the air or it’s a passing down, we have complete confidence in those guys back there. When you have guys such as Dashon Goldson, and Madieu Williams and Carlos Rogers and T[arell] Brown and [Tramaine] Brock and [Chris] Culliver who’s coming on strong. I mean, those guys, they work hard in practice, and you see them do it in practice, when it’s game time you already know what it’s going to be. Yeah, balls are going to be completed, but at the end of the day I have complete confidence that when it comes down to it, those guys are going to do their job back there. And that allows us to be better up front.”

On the New York Giants and the problems they present coming to town this coming weekend:

“It’s a big game for us because it’s our next game, and you know, the Giants are playing really good football right now. I have a former teammate of mine from college leading that team, leading that offense, and it’s going to be a pleasure playing against him this week. But as it is every week, it’s any given Sunday, it’s the team that prepares the best during the week, but really goes out there and Sunday and put forward their best foot. I know we love what we we’ve got going here; we love the feeling of winning because it’s something we haven’t done in a long time. Our whole motto is to be better this upcoming week than we were the week before. And as long as we continue doing that and live by that and believe in that, I think we’re going to be alright.”

On playing so much better in this year’s 3-4 compared to the one coordinated by Greg Manusky in ’10:

“Honestly, I really can’t compare the two. Even though we were in a 3-4 defense, it’s completely different how we do things. But coach Fang[io] is really on top of his stuff. Not only does Coach Vic each week put in a great game plan, he’s got a great group of guys around him, Coach Vic he doesn’t really say nothing in practice. The position coaches know exactly what he wants and how he wants it. Those guys are the guys that coach it and they getting it done. And when have a good guy like Coach [Vic] who’s a defensive coordinator, and the coaching staff he has around him, and then with the type of players that we have — than I think we just mold good together and we all understand and know what it takes. Because during the week we put in the work. During the week, it’s hard and it’s tough. But on game days we get to go out and have fun. So that’s the biggest thing — having a defensive coordinator that’s on his stuff, and then having some coaches around him to get his messages across to get what he wants done.”

If he thinks the offense is going to be able to pick up the team in a big spot like the defense has so frequently this season:

“Yeah, whatever those guys have been doing, it’s been working. Yeah, we could sit here and go ‘why can’t you get more, why can’t you get more, but honestly, at the end of the day they’re doing their job, they’re getting enough. It’s up to all three phases. Special teams — Coach Seely has those guys on special teams, I can’t forget about those guys, those guys are phenomenal. But on the offensive side of the ball, before the season so many people had so many things to say about them, but they knew what they had over there, we knew what we had over there, it was just about us sticking together and playing together, and just like I tell the boys every game, ‘just go out there and have fun, we’ve got you on this side of the ball.’ And I watch them in practice too, I pay attention to them in practice when we’re not out there going as No. 1 defense unit against the scout team, I’m looking at them, I’m looking at the plays they’re running on offense and I’m looking at them trying to see if I can get a beat off them, get a key, and man, they have me like whoa. They have so many different options, so many different weapons, and as long as they continue practice the way they’ve been practicing, I think the sky’s the limit for them. But whatever they’ve been doing, just keep doing it and continue getting better at it. And I know those guys will because it means a lot to them.”

Listen here to Willis with The Drive on 97.5 The Game in San Francisco

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