SANTA CLARA Patrick Willis is a six-time Pro Bowl linebacker, the leader of the 49ers' locker room and the face of the franchise. He also might be watching from the sideline during stretches of Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers.
When the teams met in Week 1, Willis missed 22 of 68 plays, the most snaps he's sat out when healthy in any game of his career. That's because the Packers used so many four-receiver sets and also used wideout Randall Cobb in the backfield that the 49ers were forced to play their dime defense for most of the game.
In those situations, No. 4 cornerback Perrish Cox joins fellow cornerbacks Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver on the field, and one of the inside linebackers comes off. Cox ended up playing five more snaps than Willis and three fewer than inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who also was on the sideline at times.
"You don't want to take out one of those inside linebackers if you don't have to," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Tuesday. "But when it becomes a matchup that an inside linebacker maybe can't handle, or is at a deficit that somebody else can handle better, then you always do what's best for the team."
Willis also cited "the team" when discussing his playing time against Green Bay.
"I understand that I could sit around all day and walk around with a chip on my shoulder," he said. "Have an ego and say, 'I shouldn't do this and I should always be this,' but I've learned that's not a team player. A team player does what he's asked to do."
When the 49ers switch into their dime defense, the so-called "Mike" linebacker remains on the field. Willis noted that Bowman plays "Mike," and it's simply easier to leave Bowman on the field when Cox comes in.
"I have complete confidence when NaVorro's in there playing," Willis said. "And, believe me, if there was any doubt in my mind that he couldn't play it the way it should be played, of course, it's one of the things that I would go to the coach and talk about. He plays it as well as anyone I've seen play it."
The dynamic creates an interesting chess move Saturday.
While the Packers were successful in sending one of the league's top linebackers to the sideline at times, they didn't win. They ran a season-low 14 times for just 45 yards.
Aaron Rodgers threw for two touchdowns in the 30-22 loss to the 49ers but was intercepted by Bowman during a key drive in the fourth quarter.
Green Bay has found its offensive rhythm in recent weeks by emphasizing for the pass-happy Packers, at least the running game. If the Packers continue to do that, it would mean the tandem of Willis and Bowman stay on the field.
The Packers are close to having their full complement of running backs and have been sparked by first-year tailback DuJuan Harris, who was working as a salesman at a Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge dealership in Jacksonville, Fla., earlier this season.
The Packers signed Harris at midseason, then elevated him from the practice squad Dec. 1. He had 17 carries in Saturday's wild-card win over Minnesota as well as a game-high five catches for 53 yards.
Rodgers said no one on the Packers was surprised by Harris' recent performances.
"Not really, because you saw him do it against our No. 1 defense," Rodgers said. "And after a couple of weeks of watching him make a lot of great runs, there was a good amount of us wondering why No. 26 wasn't activated."