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Running back Ray Rice isn’t ready to hand over the title of the NFL’s best linebacker to Patrick Willis yet.
That honor still goes to Big Ray, Ray Lewis.
But after watching film of the 49ers defense this week, Rice sees a lot of Lewis in Willis.
“He’s the closest thing to it,” Rice said. “He plays the game the right way. He’s a tenacious player. A lot of respect for that guy. … Take Ray out, he’s the best linebacker in the NFL.”
Whether Lewis is able to play Thursday night, there will be a dominant No. 52 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Lewis has been voted to 12 Pro Bowls. Willis has gone to it the past four years, every season he’s been in the league since being the 11th overall pick in 2007.
Willis has averaged 149 tackles per year. He has five career interceptions and 17 career sacks. His four forced fumbles this season are tied for the most in the NFL with two other players, Detroit’s Cliff Avril and Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan.
Rice isn’t the only one to say Willis reminds him of Lewis.
While usually shunning comparisons, 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh joined in. Harbaugh, who played with Lewis in Baltimore in 1998, said he sees “a lot of similarities.”
“They’re both great players,” he said. “Like Ray, Patrick is the consummate team player and he is the consummate great five-tool linebacker. Ray does it all. Patrick does it all.”
Harbaugh pointed to their shared abilities to play downhill between the tackles, their abilities in pass coverage, in being able to run sideline to sideline, their tremendous tackling and excellent blitzing.
“If Patrick can do it consistently, year in and year out like Ray has done it, then I believe Patrick, like Ray, will be the Willie Mays of linebackers,” Jim said. “Patrick is that good. He’s got a chance to be one of the great linebackers of all time.”
Lewis and Willis are actually very close friends who talk often about football and life in general.
Willis calls his childhood idol “Mufasa,” the name of the king and father from “The Lion King.” Lewis calls Willis “Young Lion.”
Due to his rehabilitation, Lewis was not available for comment this week. But he has spoken to it before.
“I like a lot of [linebackers], but the one I talk to the most who I think kind of emulates me a lot is Patrick Willis,” Lewis said on ESPN’s First Take. “I just love the way he plays the game. He plays the game with a fire. He reminds me of myself – a lot, a lot, a lot.“