SANTA CLARA – This is the transcript of Patrick Willis’ Wednesday press conference, courtesy of the 49ers.
When you put on the game film of the Falcons, what’s the first thing that jumps out at you?
“They’ve got a good quarterback, a real good quarterback. The team, they’re fundamentally sound, have some great skill players. I feel like they have a complete offense.”
Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez caught that key pass on Sunday. How much does Falcons QB Matt Ryan look to Gonzalez in those types of situations?
“He looks for him a lot. Gonzalez is a guy who’s played this game for a long time, who’s been consistently good, one of the best tight ends to ever play. He’s still playing at a high level and he’s making big plays for them.”
What stands out about him? You’ve faced some of the best tight ends in the league, how does he differentiate himself from those guys?
“The thing that those guys once told me when I first got here, they say it’s all good and dandy when you come in, you can run as fast as fastest and move as quick as the quickest. But they told me the older you get the more you have to have it up here and I didn’t understand that as much then as I do now and Tony Gonzalez is a guy who plays by that. He may not be as fast as he once used to be but he’s really crafty and he knows how to get open.”
How comforting was it to have DT Justin Smith back in the game last week, just in the huddle seeing him, that presence he provides?
“It was amazing. I’m glad we had that bye week in order to get him that much healthier, just to have him out there. He’s a big part of our defense and like I said before, anytime we can have all starting 11 guys out there, that breeds confidence in the defense, it breeds confidence in one another.”
Does he have a Baltimore Ravens LB Ray Lewis type of role where he inspires guys, his presence, just in the huddle, the way he plays, just that effort?
“I don’t like comparing guys to one another. But Justin is his own guy. He is what he is to us. He’s a guy that’s going to come out there and give it everything he’s got on every play and that’s what we love about him. We’re just glad to have him back in there.”
Did he pick up right where he left off, in terms of occupying blockers for you to get in there to make tackles?
“Anytime he’s out there you have to account for him. You have to almost put two guys on him because if you don’t, that’s a chance he has to win and even when you’re putting two guys on him he still can have a chance to win. So anytime you have a guy of that magnitude, it’s great to have him out there.”
You were the guy that got after Packers QB Aaron Rodgers a lot last weekend, is that going to be a key against Matt Ryan? Getting pressure on the quarterback?
“There’s no doubt, we most certainly have to get pressure on Matt Ryan. But as we’ve done all year long, the last two seasons, our front four guys, when it’s time to get after the quarterback those guys do a great job of running the stunts they run and gaming and whatnot. It’s going to be up to them for the most part to really get after him. When coach calls for a five man pressure then we will, but for the most part we really going to count on those guys to get after him and we’re going to be in coverage. Like I said, they have some good skill guys that we have to account for.”
How was the experience of being in the NFC Championship Game last year helped prepare you and being ready this year?
“Really it’s just the experience, just knowing that this opportunity is rare, it doesn’t come around often. Although we were here last year, the prior, four years before that we were at home those other times, we didn’t make the playoffs. So just to have this opportunity again and to be here, it’s one of those things we don’t take for granted. We know that window for chances like this is slim and we have to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Back in training camp or maybe even last year, when you’re defense had to go against QB Colin Kaepernick, what sort of challenges, how frustrating could that be or was it a good learning experience for you guys as a defense?
“When we went against him in training camp and he was running scout team, he never really did the things that you see him do on our offensive side. It was more so for the teams that we would play, which was to drop back. Every now and then he would kind of scramble, for the most part he was looking to get back there and throw the passes that we were needing to get the looks on. Just to see him in practice, seeing the way that he moves in practice and then just to see him in the game it’s almost like he’s getting faster in the game, which I guess is what it tends to be most of the time.”
Is that what makes him stand out, just that speed? We saw him run away from the Packers over and over last week.
“He can throw the ball, too, has a strong arm. That’s something that makes him that much more valuable as a quarterback, not only can he run but he can throw as well. Anytime you have that kind of threat at the quarterback position, it makes it tough for a defense. I know it makes the team get better, the offensive line continue to get block for him. Just to see our offense and to see the things they did last game and all season long, I’m glad to have our offense at the point they’re at now and I just hope they turn it up even more this Sunday.”
When they’re scoring 30-40 points, what does that do for you guys?
“Anytime your offense can get out there and put up points, it allows the defense to go out there and just play. You don’t really think a whole lot, you’re not really trying to sit back on your heels and think you can’t mistake here and give up something because our offense isn’t doing anything. Anytime your offense can put up those kind of points, it allows the defense to just go out there and play.”
Head coach Jim Harbaugh talked about it feels like everyone on this team has something to prove. What do you feel like you have to prove and maybe what does this team have to prove, being back here for the second year in a row?“
For myself, really just to go out there and just play, to play at a high level and turn it up that much more. I never feel like I’ve played my best football. Even when you go back and see the game, or even after the game when people pat you on the back and say you’ve done a great job, you notice those one or two plays out there you wish you could get back that maybe they don’t know so much of what you did wrong. But us as a team, really, it’s just like I said before, being in this situation and really just bringing it home. It’s not good enough just to make the playoffs. It’s not good enough just to make it to the NFC Championship. We want to win it all. That’s what we’ll be remembered by the most, is being able to go to that Super Bowl and win it. But it starts this Sunday, winning this game to have the opportunity to go there. Just winning, winning it all.”
When you came here as a pup, Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was the head coach. What are your memories of what you learned or got from him during your time when he was here as your coach?
“I was telling somebody the other day, I think I was doing an interview and someone was asking me that question about coach Nolan. As a young one, as a rookie, I didn’t really get a chance to talk to him that much. It was more so my position coach [Vikings special assistant to head coach/linebackers coach Mike] Singletary. As a youngster, for me, I didn’t feel like I had to much to say to the head coach. It was like what am I going to talk to him about? For the most part, I didn’t really have that kind of relationship with him as you would think, but he’s a good guy. Just to see what he’s done for that Atlanta Falcons defense, they’re playing great football as well. They have a great defense down there so he’s doing something really well down there. Like I said, I don’t remember too much about that.”
Will you go over and say anything to him before the game?
“If I see him, I’ll shake his hand. Like I said before, I’ll be forever grateful for that coaching staff who drafted me and all those who had a hand in bringing me here. It was a dream come true for me and probably one of those dreams that I never thought would have happened because like I said before, I grew up a Cowboys fan and didn’t like the San Francisco 49ers for nothing. But now that’s what I bleed, that’s what I sleep, that’s what I eat. This is my home.”
This year there has been an emphasis of trying to avoid helmet to helmet contact. You’re known as one of the better tacklers in the league, but you’ve managed to somehow avoid those kind of penalties. Have you had to adjust your technique? Is it harder? Tell me about that, how you’ve been able to do that?
“That’s a sensitive subject when it comes to me. I love to play this game and I always wanted to play this game, play defense for the simple fact that you can hit and you could just let loose and for the most part not get penalized on the way that you go after somebody and tackle them. Now, you really have to be conscientiousness of it, but for the most part I can’t say what I would or wouldn’t do. I always want to play within the rules, do what I’m supposed to do. I’m not going to lie to you, if I could ever get those zero-in shots like our safeties get sometimes, like some other guys get, I can’t see how I wouldn’t. A lot of times I’m having to chase, having to breakdown, outmaneuver a fast guy who’s trying to juke you out so I never get that chance to hit straight on. I always say, just play football and whatever happens, happens. At the end of the day, it’s us against them, us against them meaning the offense and we’re trying to keep them from getting yards, first downs, or even an opportunity to win the game if they get a first down. We just have to go out there and play defense and whatever happens, happens.”
Have you consciously had to think about that?
“Not really. I’m telling you, if I could think that fast going to hit. Honestly I think it’s almost impossible sometimes to be going that fast and have a guy coming that fast at you, to be able to say I’m going to adjust. A lot of times when you do stuff like that, you tend to hurt yourself. So for me, I’m going to hit. Like I said, I hope it’s within the rules, if I ever get flagged I never mean to do it intentionally. My job is to go make tackles and however I do that, whatever needs to be done, that’s what I’m going to do.”