San Diego; Well, it has taken him until the final week of the NFL regular season to do it but LaDainian Tomlinson has finally broken out in front of Willie Parker, Adrian Peterson and Willis McGahee to take the lead among all NFL rushers for 2007. Parker is out for the last two games of the season with a broken bone in his leg, and Peterson was held to a mere 27 yards rushing by the Redskins last week in a decisive game that saw Minnesota’s quarterback rushing for more yardage than the running backs, and which brought Washington to the forefront of the NFC wild card race.
Tomlinson had his sixth 100+ yards rushing game of the year against Denver this week putting him over 1400 yards for the fifth time in his seven year career. Tomlinson has never rushed for less than 1000 yards a season â€“ his worst season was as a rookie when he ran for 1236 yards and 10 touchdowns, and last year was his best ever when he led the league with over 1800 yards and had an NFL all time record 28 rushing touchdowns in a single season.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Tomlinson is also a substantial threat as a receiver averaging close to 500 yards receiving per year. In 2003, his best performance as an outlet receiver he caught a 4th best in the NFL 100 passes for 725 yards and in total yardage he was the only running back listed in the top 40 receivers for that season. Jets Curtis Martin, Seahawks Shaun Alexander and Cleveland’s Jamal Lewis have garnered around 300-350 yards receiving per year but no other running back with Tomlinson’s rushing numbers has been as accomplished a receiver in their first seven seasons as LaDainian has, including the great Thurman Thomas who played for Buffalo from 1988 to 1999.
Tomlinson would almost certainly be over 1500 yards this season if he was allowed to play more, but in his last two outings he has been taken out of the game at or near halftime so as to keep him healthier for the post season. Tomlinson strained his hamstring slightly in the Denver contest but wanted to continue playing anyway. Next week the Chargers travel to Oakland to play a Raiders team that has the worst run defense in the league except for the 1-14 Dolphins.
Tomlinson may yet have competition for the rushing title from Eagles Brian Westbrook (1291 yards) and Vikings Peterson (1305 yards), however. That’s because this weekend Philadelphia is playing Buffalo with the 27th ranked run defense in the league, and in pursuit of the last remaining NFC wild card, the Minnesota Vikings will host the Broncos who are almost as awful at stopping the rush as Oakland. Either way, Tomlinson will finish the year as one of the NFL’s premiere all time running backs and will probably continue to be a league leader in years to come.
San Francisco; The 49ers defense has not been a significant force this year by any stretch of the imagination. They haven’t ranked above 22nd in the league in either pass or run defense, and they have allowed an average of almost 23 points a game. Defensive tackle Bryant Young, who is the last remaining player from the glory days when San Francisco was a Super Bowl dynasty joined the 49ers in 1994, the year they picked up their last and [then record] fifth Super Bowl victory with quarterback Steve Young at the helm.
Last week, as a tribute by some of the younger 49ers, the 14 year veteran and four time pro-bowl selectee was carried off the field following the victory over the NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was Young’s last home game before he retires at the end of this year, and his departure represents the last flicker of an era marked by personalities such as Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. But out of the smoking rubble of a 5-10 season in 2007 that featured an eight game slide and saw four different starting quarterbacks, a young phoenix is rising.
Other than some notable exceptions like Dallas Cowboys DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis, Patriots Mike Vrabel and Chargers Shawne Merriman, pro football linebackers are not notorious for being sack leaders. But tackling is a different arena altogether, and among the top 30 tacklers in the league right now, the first 27 are linebackers, including a man who is far and away the most prolific takedown artist in the NFL this year.
Rookie linebacker Patrick Willis, a little known talent on an otherwise unremarkable San Francisco team is a first round draft pick who was chosen 11th overall and in his brief professional career has racked up some truly amazing numbers on defense. The former first team All-American and 2006 Butkus award winner from the University of Mississippi has recorded 162 tackles so far this season. That’s 29 more tackles than the second ranked LB in that category (Broncos D.J. Williams) who has 133. Out of his total, 123 are solo tackles, and that also leads the 102 solo’s by D.J. Williams by a huge margin.
Of an incident in the Week 12 game against Arizona in which Willis executed a game saving tackle in overtime that prevented a Cardinals touchdown, Willis says “When I took off running, after the first few yards I said ‘I can get this guy.’ I had to run. I wanted to make the sure tackle. I didn’t want to leap and slide off him. He shouldn’t have been down there in the first place.” Cardinals slot receiver Sean Morey had taken off upfield after executing a short crossing pattern and was closing in on the red zone when he was wrapped up by Willis after a 62-yard run. “There are things in the playbook I can’t coach.â€ says 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. â€œOne of them is when he ran that guy down. I can’t coach that. He’s an amazing player.”