How are the 49ers compensating for the loss of Justin Smith? Patrick Willis appears willing to take up any slack in leadership as Smith tries to come back from a triceps injury.
Willis, who was named to his sixth straight Pro Bowl on Wednesday, spoke at length after Sunday's loss to the Seahawks. He was back in front of his locker today talking with reporters about how the team must learn to hold its focus if it wants to go deep into the playoffs. Dealing with the media does not exactly equate to locker-room leadership. Indeed, Smith himself only occasionally gives interviews while Willis has a similar, avoid-the-spotlight personality.
Willis, however, appears to be more willing to act as a spokesman for the team since Smith went down with an injury. The linebacker said "you can't really put it into words" what Smith means to the defense.
"He's one of the guys I look up to in this league," Willis said. " I know that people ask me about other linebackers and this and that. But I've always been a big fan of guys who go out there and give it their all, and you can see it. It's just not talk but you can see it. And Justin has been that from Day 1.
" ... Hopefully we're able to get him back in the playoffs," he continued. "But (we) also want to make sure he takes care of himself and does that right. But we most certainly miss him."
Willis also said that the 49ers believe they are a great defense but that the team's focus has lapsed at times. That's evident in the 49ers' win, win, loss pattern this season. Last year, they went on an eight-game winning streak. This year they've won no more than two games in a row.
So how does Willis go about making sure that focus stays strong?
"If I knew all the right things to say, all the right things to do perfectly, we'd never have (lapses)," he said. "But we're all human, and we're going to have those mistakes sometimes. I'm sure as a writer sometimes, you might write something and put it out and you go back and you look at, and you're like, 'You know what, I could have written that a little bit better.' So that's what we have to do. We're going to have ups and downs, we're going to have adversity. It's how you handle it that makes you the team you are."
- Matt Barrows