Reporters were having a lousy conference call with a decidedly unenthusiastic Chad Johnson on Dec. 12, 2007, when the mercurial wide receiver suddenly sprang to life.
“Who in the (expletive) is No. 52? Oh, my (expletive) God!” Johnson, then with Cincinnati, screeched. “I done seen a lot of linebackers in a seven-year period. ... He is the real deal! He’s playing with a cast on his hand, right? All during film, I’m calling him Bam-Bam.”
In preparing for the 49ers’ defense, Johnson watched with amazement as Patrick Willis, then a rookie, finished with 18 tackles against Arizona and 18 a week later vs. Carolina. One tackle against the Cardinals came when Willis ran down wide receiver Sean Morey on a 62-yard catch-and-run in overtime, a game-saving play in a game the 49ers eventually won 37-31.
No 49ers player has had back-to-back games with even 30 tackles since Willis did it twice his rookie season – until last week.
Willis is out for the season because of a toe injury, and his replacement, rookie Chris Borland, had 18 tackles against St. Louis and 17 against New Orleans. Borland even added his own overtime heroics in New Orleans when he pounced on a fumble by darting in front of at least three players who were closer to the ball.
“I was unabated, so I just dove for it, and it was there,” Borland said. “It’s more (about) being in the right place at the right time.”
That’s a good way to describe his success.
Borland, who will make his fourth consecutive start Sunday against the New York Giants, plays with a terrier-like intensity and always seems to be in the right spot. His position coach, Jim Leavitt, described him as a “little cannonball.”
“He plays with everything he has,” Leavitt said. “He has quick feet; he has a great nose for the ball; he anticipates extremely well. He’s going to get to the ballcarrier – whatever that takes, he’s going to get there.”
Asked the secret to making 17 tackles – is it instinct, hustle, preparation? – the 49ers’ other starter at inside linebacker, Michael Wilhoite, said all of the above.
“Maybe you get two or three tackles off of instinct. You get three or four tackles off of hustle. Maybe you get five or six tackles off of preparation,” he said. “I think (he’s) exceeded everyone’s expectations in the sense that you never expect anyone to have 17 tackles. Ten-plus, period, for any player is very good.”
When the 49ers chose Borland in the third round in May, it looked like an odd pick. The linebacker with a knack for being in the right place seemed to have landed in the wrong spot.
If any position on the 49ers is set and sealed, it’s inside linebacker. Willis, a Pro Bowl pick in each of his seven seasons, is signed through 2016. Three-time All-Pro NaVorro Bowman is under contract through 2018.
What’s more, Borland doesn’t even look like an NFL linebacker and is an unlikely choice to appear in an ESPN “body” issue photo shoot, as Willis did in 2010.
Whereas Willis has blazing speed – just ask Morey – Borland ran a middling 4.83-second 40-yard dash before the draft. He has the everyman physique of a guy you call to fix the leaky elbow pipe beneath the sink.
But now Borland’s selection seems prescient, almost predestined.
Not only is Willis, who has missed eight games because of various injuries since 2011, finished for the season, there’s a chance Bowman, who is still rehabilitating from a January ACL tear, won’t play in 2014, either.
In the run-up to Sunday’s game, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio cautioned that substituting Borland for Willis is not a one-for-one equation. Willis is unique, Fangio said, and his speed and coverage ability have allowed the 49ers’ defense to guard against an opponent’s passing game without sacrificing toughness or tackling ability.
“You don’t find many complete players like he is,” Fangio said.
Still, Borland’s two-game achievement, especially in New Orleans’ playoff-like environment, is encouragement that losing Willis is not the damaging blow to the 49ers’ prospects it may have been in previous seasons.
That’s how Sunday’s opponent views the situation, although the reviews of Borland have not been nearly as profuse – or profane – as they were for Willis seven years ago.
“He seems to be around the ball and making a lot of tackles and a lot of plays,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. “It seems like the guys have filled in well and are playing at a high level.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.