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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 1:05 a.m., Thursday, December 6, 2007

NFL: Star rookies Willis (49ers), Peterson (Vikes) meet

Advertiser Staff

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Patrick Willis had a pretty good idea Adrian Peterson was something special when the two rookies worked out together in Arizona during the months leading up to the NFL draft.

Peterson developed something of an impression of Willis there, too.

"He's a freak," Peterson said yesterday. "Working out with him, I saw the talent he has. The past two weeks, he has gotten 37 tackles. That's not normal."

Actually, Willis has recorded only 36 tackles the past two weeks for the San Francisco 49ers — 18 each in games against the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers. It's the most tackles recorded in a game by a San Francisco player since the NFL began keeping track of unofficial tackles in 1994.

That recent flourish has given Willis a wide lead as the NFL's leading tackler, and as such he's well aware of some of the freakish things Peterson is doing this season at running back for the Minnesota Vikings.

Despite missing two games, Peterson leads the NFL with 1,197 yards rushing and is first among the league's 50 leading rushers with a gaudy average of 6.5 yards per carry. Peterson and the surging Vikings (6-6) will bring the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack to San Francisco on Sunday to face Willis and the struggling 49ers (3-9).

The game will feature a match-up of two of the NFL's most productive impact rookies, not to mention the leading candidates for the leagues offensive and defensive rookie of the year awards.

"That'll be a fun one to watch," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It'll be a great match-up. I do think that is one of the more interesting challenges in this football game, because they will meet."

Willis and Peterson got to know each other earlier this year at the Athletes Performance Institute facility in Tempe, Ariz., where they began training for the NFL Combine in February. They challenged each other during workouts and pushed each other to succeed.

It paid off for both players in the April draft as Peterson was selected by the Vikings with the No. 7 overall selection in the first round and Willis went four picks later to the 49ers.

"One thing I realized while working out with Patrick is that he is very competitive," Peterson said. "You don't really see that too much in guys that are as gifted as him as far as his speed being 4.3 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) at 240 pounds. He's strong as an ox. That's one thing I picked up on which made me respect him that much more. I definitely like his fearless style of play."

Willis leads the NFL with 128 tackles according to league statistics. The 49ers, in coaches' review of game films, have Willis with 173 tackles this season. Willis quickly is closing in on Derek Smith's team record of 189 tackles with a quarter of the season still remaining.

Despite Willis' prowess, San Francisco's rushing defense has faltered in recent weeks while slipping to 26th in the NFL rankings. This could be the sternest test of the season for that unit, but Willis says he's preparing to face Peterson just like any other game.

"He's a great runner," Willis said. "He cuts, breaks tackles, runs hard. We really have to come in and be focused on just stopping the run, period. It's the same motivation that I've had for the last 13 weeks, to come out and be the very best I can be each game. Every week the running back is the best running back in the league because that's the running back we're facing that week."

But even Willis senses it will be a bit different this week when he and Peterson go helmet-to-helmet.

"He runs hard and I like to say I tackle hard," Willis said. "So we'll have to see if it happens on game day. I am sure it's bound to happen."