Saturday, August 29, 2009

49ers' Willis will check his Cowboys fandom at the sideline


Growing up in Tennessee, linebacker Patrick Willis loved the Dallas Cowboys. Loved 'em. He still smiles widely as he recalls his favorite players: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Darryl Johnston.

Willis was such a big Cowboys fan, in fact, that he rumbled whenever his 49ers-loving cousin dared to mention a certain other NFL powerhouse team out West.

"Every time he would say Jerry Rice or Joe Montana, we would fight," Willis said. "That's how serious it was."

Considering that history, Willis will be excited in more ways than one when the 49ers — his 49ers — visit the new $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium today.

It is the third exhibition for both teams, but the first appearance for the 49ers' two-time Pro Bowl linebacker. Willis was hampered by ankle and Achilles injuries early in camp and is just now rounding into health.

The coaching staff held him out against the Raiders a week ago as a precaution, but Willis has full clearance for today's game and could play most of the first half.

The 49ers want to see how their defense looks when they add their main ingredient. Through the first two exhibition games, the 49ers rank ninth overall in defense (293.0 yards allowed per game) and are tied for first in turnover differential (plus-6).

Now, the 49ers add Willis, their defensive captain who eagerly anticipates his first tackle of the 2009 season. Defensive players can make contact in practice, but there is no to-the-ground tackling.

So Willis has been at the buffet for two weeks without taking a bite.

"I've had to calm myself down a couple of times," he conceded. "I kind of get a thud in here and there without going against how we work and how we practice. But it's going to be fun to be able to hit again and tackle live."

Maybe Willis' arrival can perk up a sagging pass rush. The 49ers have just one sack through two games, and that came when the Raiders' JaMarcus Russell fell down after tripping over his running back.

The Cowboys game is a significant test, since the starting units for both teams will remain on the field for an extended period.

In Dallas' previous game, against Tennessee, the starting five of Flozell Adams, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo allowed quarterback Tony Romo to pass for 192 yards on 24 attempts without allowing a sack.

Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said the 49ers do not game plan for exhibition games, nor do they show off much in terms of their blitz packages. They want to save the surprises for the regular season.

Through the first two games, Manusky simply watched to see if defenders could win their one-on-one matchups — with mixed results. Coach Mike Singletary said the 49ers' pass rush was "non-existent" after the first game and was sparse with praise after the second.

If the 49ers want to be an elite defense, they're going to need more than a mediocre pass rush.

Manusky said: "We've been very successful in having turnovers the last couple of weeks, and sometimes, some of those pressures lead to those turnovers. So, I'm expecting the guys to roll off and start getting a good push up the middle."

Getting Willis back is a big piece of the puzzle. By the 49ers' count, the middle linebacker has 10 or more tackles in 26 of his 32 career starts. He has 20 or more tackles four times.

Moreover, he serves as traffic cop for the defense. Willis wears the specially designated helmet that receives the play call via radio transmission from the sideline. It's Willis' job to get that call to everyone else.

"He hasn't done it for a couple of months, so it's good for him to take control of the huddle and get the calls," Manusky said. "Sometimes it's not the greatest sound. There are lots of times when you just hear, 'What?' "

At least Willis will be able to concentrate a little easier this time. When the 49ers played in Dallas last season, at old Texas Stadium, the former Cowboys fan was so fired up about being on the hallowed field that he felt like a kid again.

"Every play I was just excited to be out there," Willis said. "This year, playing them, I believe I won't be so excited.

"I'll be able to calm down and actually make a play or two."