SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Patrick Willis bounced from one drill to the next, delivering hits and asking questions all over the San Francisco 49ers’ practice field with a physical presence impossible to miss.
Even on offense.
The All-Pro linebacker and leader of one of the NFL’s best defenses started studying all aspects of the game this offseason. Willis has worked with linemen on both sides of the ball in training camp, even spending time with wide receivers and tight ends to learn how they adapt to coverages.
“I’m starting to understand more,” Willis said Saturday. “I feel like the more I understand, the more that it’s going to catch up with my body. And once those two finally catch up with each other, then we might have something serious.”
That’s a scary scenario for NFL offenses.
After a dominating defense carried the 49ers to the NFC championship game, Willis and the rest of his teammates are searching for new ways to sharpen a squad already considered among football’s fiercest. All 11 starters are back from a young unit that had two other All-Pros — linebacker NaVorro Bowman and defensive tackle Justin Smith — and the runner-up for the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award in Aldon Smith.
The 49ers led the league in takeaways (38), rushing defense (77.2 yards per game) and finished second only to the Pittsburgh Steelers in points allowed per game (14.3). Pittsburgh averaged 14.2 points allowed.
Yet the only statistic defensive coordinator Vic Fangio reminds his players about is the thrilling 36-32 victory in the divisional round of the playoffs against the favored New Orleans Saints and the heartbreaking 20-17 overtime loss to the eventual champion New York Giants that followed.
“Everybody that’s on this defense that was here last year that is still here, that was their first playoff victory in their careers, all of them,” Fangio said. “And it was their first trip to the championship game for all of them. And I don’t think we have anybody that’s going to be satisfied with just that. I think if anything else it wets their appetite even a little bit more, and they’re looking for more. So I don’t think complacency will be an issue.”
The willingness for veterans to do new things is perhaps what makes San Francisco special.
Willis dropped into coverage and chased tight ends more last season in a sudden shift from the blitz-happy middle linebacker he had been for his first five seasons. Along with Bowman, the pair pushed and provoked blockers at will, not even allowing a rushing touchdown until Week 16 against Seattle.
Through the first two days of training camp, Willis has been spotted leaving linebackers drills to do everything from milking defensive line coach Jim Tomsula for information to becoming coach Jim Harbaugh’s blocking buddy as wide receivers and tight ends run routes.
“I’m always asking them, ‘What made them do this? Or why’d you do this?’” Willis said. “You can ask the offensive coaches. I’m always trying to pick their brain like, ‘I know you said this, but he didn’t do this. What made him do that?’ They have what they do and why they do it. Those guys get pretty advanced.”
Willis is not the only one.
Justin Smith also showed a strong fervor, playing multiple positions on the line and, at times, even shifting to outside linebacker last season. Smith was selected to the All-Pro team at two different positions — a first-team defensive tackle and a second-team defensive end — setting the tone for a 49ers defense that mixed and matched players to their potential.