Up the middle: Some words about Franklin and Willis

Let’s talk about the middle of the 49ers’ defense, especially nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and middle linebacker Patrick Willis.

Franklin came to the 49ers as a 330-pound mound of humanity to sit over the center and not be budged. But he was not the immovable force that many want to see out of a nose tackle. So what did he do in the offseason? Well, he lost weight, of course.


Franklin is down to 315 pounds after an offseason in which he spent a lot of time with a personal trainer in Atlanta working on his quickness and lateral movement. The past month or so, Franklin is playing pretty darn well. He ranks sixth on the 49ers with 63 tackles — a pretty healthy amount for someone who plays his position.


Radio analyst and straight shooter Gary Plummer has regularly singled out Franklin for his improved play in recent weeks. Franklin‘s effectiveness appears to have a lot to do with the 49ers adapting to his strengths.


“I can two-gap, but what they ask me to do, me being a little lighter, is to move me, and that’s helped me on my game,” Franklin said.


I asked if he is “moving” more after the coaching change.


“No, I think it’s still the same amount,” he said. “Coach (Greg) Manusky does a good job where he can switch up the calls. I’m just not sitting there two-gapping the whole time.


“The play-calling been to our advantage. There’s a change of pace every now and then. I’m not just sitting there in a regular two-gap. He gives us a call where we’re all moving and taking that bull’s eye off our chests.”


Franklin has been injury-free this season. Last year, he rarely was healthy. Franklin tore a knee ligament in training camp and tore up his calf muscle during the season.


Mike Singletary has known Franklin since he was a rookie. Singletary was Ravens linebackers coach at the time.


“He’s not as big as a lot of nose guards, but the thing about him, whether he’s moving or whether he’s head up on the nose . . . he’s a guy who has great anticipation,” Singletary said. “He anticipates the snap count and anticipates double-teams. That gives him a little bit of an edge, in terms of just making sure he’s ready for whatever’s going to come.


“And if he has a jump on you, he’s going to do a good job and he has good leverage. He’s not the tallest guy in the world, so he’s tough to kick around.”


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Willis gets a lot more attention than Franklin, of course. But he’s not getting as much attention this season because his tackle numbers are down from his rookie season. Willis will probably never match the number of tackles he recorded as a rookie, because he’ll never play on a team that features such a horrendous offense.


But Willis said he believes he is a better player this season. Willis recorded 226 tackles as a rookie. He has 153 tackles with three games remaining in the season.


I spoke to Willis today about his big hit on Jets receiver Brad Smith, who sustained a concussion on the play. Smith did not practice Wednesday due to the injury.


With 2:22 remaining in Sunday’s game, Smith caught a short pass from Brett Favre on a crossing pattern. Michael Lewis was in coverage and he was bringing Smith down when Willis stepped in and delivered a blow that bent Smith backward. In the course of making the hit, the right side of Willis’ helmet hit the left side of Smith’s helmet.


Smith appeared stunned, as 49ers safety Mark Roman motioned to the Jets sideline for medical help. But Smith quickly popped to his feet before going back down to the ground after taking several steps.


“I didn’t think anything about it,” Willis said. “It was football I didn’t think there was anything illegal about it. I hope I don’t get fined.


“This game was meant to be physical. Crazy stuff and illegal stuff might happen sometimes, but most of the time, it’s just straight-out football. I think it’s a shame because I feel like now on defense, you have to be really sensitive about how you hit somebody.


“How are you supposed to wait until somebody comes out of the air to hit somebody with a perfect form tackle?


“The game of football is one on one. You have to beat that man. Either he’s going to make you look bad or you’re going to make him look bad.”


As for the hit, Willis admits that it was a linebacker’s dream.


“It felt great,” Willis said. “Anytime you hit somebody like that it feels great. I thought it was a good hit. He caught the ball and he was running with it. It wasn’t like I hit him away from the ball and it was cheap. He had the ball, and I hit him. . . . But, yeah, I thought it was good.”


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My colleague, Lowell Cohn, sat down Wednesday and talked to Singletary at length about the notebook he uses to record everything he does in the course of the day. Click here to read “Mike Singletary and his life notebook.”


And from the pages of tomorrow’s Press Democrat . . .  Singletary won’t get job before Dec. 29” . . . and “Gore may not play.”


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