SANTA CLARA (AP) — The pain Patrick Willis is feeling in his groin is not enough to keep him from starting in his home state when the San Francisco 49ers face the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
Not even close.
San Francisco’s All-Pro middle linebacker, who also is still healing a broken bone in his right hand suffered during training camp, plans to play through the pain for the second straight week after missing the previous two games. He admits he’s not healthy — just healthy enough to help his team.
“I’d be lying if I said I felt A-plus out there,” Willis said Thursday. “I can’t lie and say I can get to fifth gear right now. I don’t think I can. But I think my first, second and third gear, maybe fourth, can be enough to do well. And hopefully when that bye week comes, I can get back up to that seventh gear.”
The 49ers (4-2) still have two games to play before that week off. And the way Willis sees it, he can grind through games at Tennessee (3-3) and against Jacksonville (0-6) in London and rest later.
San Francisco sure hopes that formula works out. Willis was solid, but not spectacular, for most of the 49ers’ 32-20 win over Arizona last Sunday — but he made the biggest play of the game.
With the Cardinals driving for a go-ahead score in the third quarter, Willis stripped the ball from wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald deep in 49ers territory. Rookie Eric Reid recovered, and San Francisco started an 18-play touchdown drive that put the game of reach.
“I know it made Pat feel good to get his feet back out there,” fellow All-Pro middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman said.
Forcing turnovers is something Willis and the 49ers have been awfully good at lately.
San Francisco has 10 takeaways in the past three games — all wins — that led to 54 points, including four in each of the past two games. The 49ers forced only one turnover in the two previous games — both losses — combined at Seattle and at home against Indianapolis.
The ability to make such game-changing plays is why Willis will continue to play through pain. Coaches also expect him to adjust to his limitations better this week, too.
“You go through two weeks of total inactivity and then you come back to practice with a leg injury that is still lingering there, you don’t always have that confidence,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “But he played fine, and I think he’ll be better this week.”
Working through injuries is nothing new for the native of Bruceton, Tenn., which is about a 90-minute drive west of Nashville. He played three times with a cast on his right hand in college at Mississippi and broke that same hand in a one-on-one blocking drill with fullback Bruce Miller in training camp.
Willis sat out all four preseason games but returned for San Francisco’s season-opening win over Green Bay, though he said the hand is still not fully healed. He has missed only six games in his seven-year career, making the Pro Bowl each season.
Willis referenced the same mantra that teammate and defensive lineman Justin Smith often sites when asked why he plays through injuries: “If you only play this game when you’re 100 percent, then you’d never play.”
“You just have to tough it up and get ready to play some football,” Willis said. “And that’s what I love.”