SANTA CLARA — Patrick Willis had no chance last December to do his part in stopping Marshawn Lynch and helping keep San Francisco's impressive streak alive: 36 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
The All-Pro linebacker missed last season's second meeting with the division-rival Seattle Seahawks, sidelined for three games with an injured right hamstring.
And San Francisco's run of holding rushers below 100 yards ended when Lynch went for 107 in the 49ers' 19-17 win at Seattle on Dec. 24. Now, the Seahawks star comes to Candlestick Park for Thursday night's prime time NFC West showdown with a healthy Willis waiting on the other side of the ball.
"He runs the ball hard, a very elusive guy," Willis said Tuesday. "He's a very hard tackle. We're going to have to have everybody swarming to the ball and not expecting one guy to make the play. He's by far one of the best running backs in the league and will be one of the best backs we face all year long. We've got to face him twice."
And the Niners, tied with Seattle and Arizona for first place at 4-2, will be looking to bounce back from Sunday's embarrassing 26-3 home defeat to the defending Super Bowl champion Giants.
Slowing down Lynch will be a top priority if the Niners are going to win this one. He ranks first in the NFC and third in the NFL with 549 yards on 128 carries.
"Their running game is the bread and butter of their offense," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Tuesday. "And everything works off of that. He's one of the best backs in the league. He's the best back we played last year by far. He broke more tackles than any back we played against last year. He broke the most against us."
Willis was held out of the regular season finale in 2010 for the first missed start of his career since San Francisco selected him with the 11th overall pick in 2007 out of Mississippi — that time because of a broken bone in his hand. Then, going down again late last season for the NFC West champions was even harder for him. The 49ers went 13-3 and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs.
"It was very tough. I'm a very competitive guy and I love being out there on the field any chance I get," Willis said. "Sometimes you may take things for granted, but when you don't get to do the things you love to do, it stings a little bit. I feel good. We feel good. We know Thursday's a big game for us. One, because it's the next game but also it's a game in our division. We want to start it off right."
San Francisco's streak of 36 straight games without a 100-yard rusher dated to Ryan Grant's 129-yard day for Green Bay on Nov. 22, 2009. Not only did Lynch end that streak in December, his 4-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was the first rushing TD allowed by San Francisco all season.
Lynch also will have something to prove Thursday night. His 41 yards on 15 carries in Seattle's 24-23 comeback victory against the Patriots on Sunday were his fewest since Week 8 of last season, when he was held to 24 yards by Cincinnati.