Right about now, you're probably thinking that linebacker Patrick Willis is having a nice season, but not the MVP-caliber year he had last year. Statistically speaking, you'd be right, but not by very much. Through 10 games, Willis is second in the league - to Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson - with 90 tackles. Through 10 games last season, Willis had 92 tackles. Willis, of course, led the league in that category in 2007, and it was at this point last season that he began putting a lot of space between him and the No. 2 tackler. In the last six games, his tackle totals were 18, 18, 8, 6, 20 (!!) and 12 - astounding for a guy who had a broken hand and who was supposed to hit the rookie wall in mid November.
Will Willis approach 174 total tackles this year? I'm guessing he won't, but not because he's is not playing as well as he did last season. Tackle numbers usually are inversely proportional to the caliber of your defense. That is, defenses that can't get off the field are the ones that produce the top tacklers. The top five tacklers from this season, for example, all play for teams that are ranked in the bottom half of the league in defense.
Though the 49ers are losing just as much as they did a year ago, they have been in more games. That means opposing offenses aren't as content to run the ball - and run the clock - in the second half of games. Indeed, the fact that the 49ers' offense is better this season has a positive effect on the team as a whole but probably reduces Willis' tackle total.
Another factor is Willis' supporting cast. Fellow inside linebacker Takeo Spikes is an improvement over last year's "ted" linebacker, Derek Smith. Spikes is averaging six tackles per game whereas Smith last year averaged 4.9. That is, Spikes may be getting a tackle here and there that a year ago might have gone to Willis.
A bigger issue is the play of the defensive line, which should be shielding Willis from offensive linemen and allowing him to make tackles near the line of scrimmage. Remember all the "stuffs" - tackles behind the line of scrimmage - Marques Douglas had last year? He finished with 13 of them and the 49ers as a whole finished with an impressive 81. Through 10 games this year, that number is just 29, an indication that the defensive line is not as stout along the line of scrimmage as it was a year ago.
Top 5 tacklers
D'Qwell Jackson, CLE 99
Patrick Willis, SF 90
Gary Brackett, INDY 88
Kirk Morrison, OAK 87
Gibril Wilson, OAK 86
-- Matt Barrows