SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- One of the NFL's leading tacklers over the past three seasons says the league is placing unreasonable restrictions on its defensive players.
Patrick Willis said Wednesday that the latest crackdown on dangerous and flagrant hits will make it difficult for him and other players to do what they do best.
"I thought as a defensive guy you're supposed to hit," Willis said. "You shouldn't get in trouble or fined or get a flag for just playing football. As a defensive player, it's hard to play football now without worrying about the crazy stuff."
The NFL this week imposed fines totaling $175,000 on three players for hits during last week's games and warned that violent conduct will be cause for suspension in the future.
The 49ers have not had a defender fined for a violent hit this season, and Willis said he and his teammates can only continue to play the way they've been taught throughout their careers.
"You make an all-out effort to play the game which you've been playing since you were a kid, to tackle a guy and deliver a lick that's crucial, and all of a sudden you accidentally hit him the wrong way because you're just trying to make a play," Willis said. "And now you get a flag for it. And now you can get fined and suspended. It's a league rule, and I guess we have to play by them. But for me, I'm going to play the game."
Willis already is having a tough enough time this season without having to worry about increased restrictions.
The linebacker, who has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons, is off to the slowest start of his four-year career.
Willis led the league in tackles during his first season, when he was named NFL Rookie Defensive Player of the Year. He led the NFL in tackles again last season after finishing second in that category in 2008. He has 514 tackles since entering the league in 2007, the NFL's top figure during that span.
But Willis is well off the NFL-leading pace this year. He currently is tied for 15th in the league with 47 tackles.
After signing a five-year, $50 million contract extension in May, Willis has found it tougher to make plays this year in the middle of San Francisco's defense. Willis entered this season with 22 games of double-digit tackles in 48 career starts, but his 10-tackle effort in the season opener against Seattle is the only time he has reached that standard in 2010. His tackle total has diminished in each game since to a season-low six during last week's 17-9 victory over the Oakland Raiders.
After three seasons of watching Willis create havoc against opposing offenses, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said opponents now are structuring their game plan to send extra blocking to take him out of a play or are avoiding Willis entirely.
"Wouldn't you?" Manusky said. "I think every team is going to game-plan Patrick Willis. I know during practice, they're teaching their players to put a hat on Pat. He's one of the playmakers on our team. When they come to the line of scrimmage, you know the offensive line says, 'We've got to block that guy.'"
Willis has been frustrated by the extra attention this year, not to mention San Francisco's slow start defensively. The 49ers were expected to have one of the NFL's better defenses this year, but the unit has spent most of the season in the bottom half of the league rankings.
"It's been tough," Willis said. "I remember there were times when I could just stack and run, and they wouldn't come off, or just play and most of the times never get touched. But now you're starting to feel something from every angle. It's certainly something I have to adjust to and get used to."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press