Patrick Willis is a play-making, tackle-lovin’ linebacker — who misses his puppy.
Zeus, a blue-nosed pit bull, is back home in San Francisco while Willis and the 49ers are on an extended road trip for the second straight season.
Rather than head back to the West Coast after a loss in Minnesota last week, Jim Harbaugh’s team stayed in eastern Ohio and practiced at Youngstown State all week — giving the 49ers a much shorter trip to New York to play the Jets on Sunday.
“They always say, ‘There’s no place like home,’” Willis said. “Obviously, we’d like to be sleeping in our own beds. I have a puppy, so I’d love to be seeing him, but other than that, it’s good to try to get away from the distractions back home. And distractions, I don’t mean it in a bad way, but we have to focus more on football.”
Especially coming off their surprising 24-13 loss to the Vikings. For a team considered by many to be the best in the NFL, last week turned out to be a big dud. So, a little time together on the road might be the perfect remedy for the 49ers (2-1).
“It gives us the chance to do what we need to do, and hopefully be more focused and just continue to build team camaraderie between us,” Willis said. “My take on it is good. It’s going to benefit us in a lot of ways, more than one.”
San Francisco hopes that translates into a victory at MetLife Stadium, where the 49ers will play for the first time against the AFC East-leading Jets (2-1).
After all, it worked last season when the 49ers won in Cincinnati, stayed in eastern Ohio and then rallied from a 20-0 deficit to stun the Eagles 24-23 in Philadelphia.
“What are the risks? What are the rewards?” coach Jim Harbaugh said, referring to the list he made of pros and cons for not going back to San Francisco. “The rewards, to us, outweighed the risks.”
Quarterback Alex Smith and the rest of the 49ers’ offense also had a little extra time to gameplan against a Jets defense that will be without All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis for the rest of the season after he tore a ligament in his left knee in New York’s 23-20 overtime win at Miami last Sunday.
Kyle Wilson, the Jets’ first-round draft pick in 2010, will move into Revis’ starting spot opposite Antonio Cromartie — with the rest of the defense needing to help compensate for the loss of the team’s best player.
“Well, I’d love to have Darrelle and I wish Darrelle was playing and all that,” coach Rex Ryan said. “But we have to move on, and we will. I like our plan going into the game and sometimes we’ll do multiple things, and that’s how we’re going to approach it.”
New York’s defense has struggled a bit this season, especially after Ryan hailed it as being the best he’s had since taking over as coach in 2009. It ranks 21st overall and 28th against the run, which means it could be in for a long day against Smith, who ranks third in the league with a 69.6 completion percentage, and running back Frank Gore, who has been one of the NFL’s best during the last several years.
Throw in a receiving corps that includes Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, and tight end Vernon Davis — labeled the league’s best at his position by Ryan — and the Jets have quite the challenge at hand.
“They throw the ball down the field,” Cromartie said. “Most people call it conservative, but for them it’s really not conservative. They stay safe with the football.”
That’s for sure, especially considering that Smith went a franchise-record 249 passes without being intercepted before Minnesota’s Josh Robinson picked him off with 2:18 left last Sunday.
“They have plenty of weapons, for sure, over there,” Ryan said.
And the Jets have a big one that teams have been preparing for, but are seeing little of on the field so far in backup quarterback Tim Tebow. After talking all summer about how Tebow brings a dynamic presence to the offense, there has been hardly any evidence of that through the Jets’ first three games.
He saw his most snaps on offense last Sunday, getting on the field for about 14 plays, but his biggest impact came on a fake punt that he ran for a first down. He has yet to throw a pass, and the top-secret wildcat package has mostly remained under wraps.
But that doesn’t mean the 49ers aren’t concerned about what Tebow could do.
“Tebow has had a lot of success running the wildcat package when he was at the Broncos,” Willis said. “And I’ve seen him have some pretty good runs thus far, with them running it as little as they have. It’s most definitely going to be something that we have to be able to stop, as far as the run game.”
The Dolphins did a pretty good job of that last week against the Jets, who were lucky to leave Miami with a win after Nick Folk’s field goal in overtime — after his first attempt was blocked following a timeout by Joe Philbin. Sanchez was mostly miserable throughout the game but came through in the fourth quarter and then again in overtime with some big-time throws, many of them to Santonio Holmes.
The two had fantastic chemistry, appearing to consistently be on the same page for the first time since 2010. New York will need the Sanchez-to-Holmes connection to be working again this week against the 49ers’ tough defense.
“These guys are greedy, man, and they led the league last year in turnovers,” Holmes said. “We have to be aware of the different coverages that they run, having guys pressed up, but they can be in different types of looks, so we really have to study hard this week and be prepared for it.”
Earlier in the week, Ryan raved about the talent on San Francisco’s roster, saying that the Jets have seven of the 49ers’ defensive players graded as All-Pro-caliber — and it all starts with Willis.
“Going against San Francisco, you almost have to be perfect,” Ryan said. “Going against this kind of team, it has to be precise.”
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