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SANTA CLARA — For three years, Takeo Spikes played sensei (mentor) to Patrick Willis, helping the younger linebacker sharpen his immense physical talents with an insider's knowledge of the game.

The on-field relationship ended last offseason when Spikes signed with San Diego. Primary among his reasons, no doubt, was the Chargers' strong position as a playoff contender. Sixteen regular-season games later, it is the protege who is preparing for his first playoff game, while the mentor is home again, reduced to a spectator's role during the postseason.

"He's sent me text messages, just saying, &‘I'm happy for y'all boys, keep it up. I'm watching, and y'all continue doing your thing,'" an appreciative Willis said from the 49ers locker room Friday.

Fortunately for the Niners, Willis appears healthy enough to fully do his thing, a thing that perhaps no other inside linebacker in the NFL can do with such consistency and devastating force. The fifth-year pro strained his hamstring while trying to tackle Rams fullback Brit Miller at Candlestick Park in Week 13, and missed three games before returning for the season finale at St. Louis.

Friday, Willis said he is feeling "really good" physically. He also agreed that it was important to get onto the field for that final regular-season tune-up.

"I knew all along, my whole mindset was as soon as I could go, I was willing to go," Willis said. "It wasn't something that I was just waiting until the playoffs. But there's no substitute for game-playing, unless you're out there in the real game. So I needed that game a lot."

Backup Larry Grant, a fourth-year veteran, played very well in Willis' absence, and the San Francisco defense hardly seemed to skip a beat. But no one is under the delusion that Willis is a replaceable part. With Baltimore's Ray Lewis in the winter of his career, Willis' size (6-foot-1, 240 pounds), sideline-to-sideline speed, raw power and ability to diagnose plays make him the premier inside linebacker in the league. Losing him for even one playoff game would have dented the 49ers' chances to advance.

"He's one of our leaders," fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "Anytime we can get our leader back and get things back to normal, it's great for us. I think we play a lot better with him out there on the field, and we're excited about having him back."

Not that Willis ever entertained the idea of missing a playoff game.

"No, not at all," he insisted. "I mean, we looked at it, we got an MRI, and it looked the way it looked on the MRI. And then they said, &‘OK, we got to take some time and get it right before we let you back out there.' Because the last thing they wanted to do was try to push you to get back sooner, and hurt it for the longer process."

It has been sort of an odd year for Willis. The development of Bowman inside, in his second season, has been a huge boost for the defense. But it hurt Willis statistically, drawing away tackles. Willis had been the 49ers' leading tackler each of his first four seasons. This time, Bowman led with 143 to Willis' 97.

Factor in those three games lost to injury (Willis had missed just one game over his first four campaigns), and the linebacker could have been viewed as trending downward in 2011. Instead, he received his fifth Pro Bowl election and, he learned Friday, his fourth Associated Press first-team all-pro selection. Bowman joined him as an all-pro.

Willis acted as if he hardly noticed his achievement.

"Honestly, I've never been one to sit back and think about, you know, the accolades I could win or the awards I could win or things I could be chosen for," he said. "I let everybody else choose and pick all those things. I just play to the best of my ability."

In fact, Willis was subdued even when discussing his first postseason opportunity. Generally recognized as one of the team's hardest workers (on the field, in the weight room, in film sessions and just about anywhere else you can imagine), you might expect him to be doing backflips — landing on his good hammy, of course — over making the playoffs.

But Willis has a bigger target in his sights.

"Honestly? I haven't really thought a whole lot into it, as far as like getting to the postseason," he said.

"To me, my whole mindset is, we're still in it, and we got a chance. And that's all I've ever asked for, to have a chance. ... Now we're in, and I just want to see how far we can take this thing."

The work will begin in earnest at about 8 p.m. tonight, when the 49ers find out who they will play next Saturday at Candlestick.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.