Jordan Willis tells the story behind his famous blocked punt—and why it was such a twist of fate for the 49ers

Jan 27, 2022 at 6:40 PM--

The blocked punt against the Green Bay Packers that could go down as one of the biggest plays in 49ers postseason history turned out to be a product of strong execution and terrific coaching, with maybe a strange dose of luck to go along with it.

49ers defensive end Jordan Willis spoke to reporters on Thursday for the first time since his blocked punt, which was recovered by safety Talanoa Hufanga for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of last Saturday's 13-10 Divisional Playoff win at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Willis had a number of fascinating things to say about the block, starting with the revelation that he usually wouldn't have even been lined up in that situation at all but was called upon by special teams coach Richard Hightower due to his past punt-blocking success, and because of the fact that an injury cleared the way for him to get the nod.

"The scenario was I believe someone got hurt in the game; I don't really know for sure," Willis said. "But someone got hurt, so another defensive end was put in to take up the role. But when it came down to that critical situation, Coach Hightower just thought because in the past I've been in situations where I've blocked a punt, like when I was a rookie, and he knew I had the ability to do that. So he just felt more comfortable putting someone in there that had previously done it. Then we also had a couple weeks ago issues where we ran into the punter, so he probably was trying to prevent a situation like that happening at a critical time of the game."

Willis wasn't included in any of the previous punt coverage packages the 49ers used earlier in the game. As a matter of fact, the blocked punt was the first time since the January 2 win over the Houston Texans that Willis was used in any punting situation.

"I think the last time I was in there before this game was against the Texans, and we had a block put up," Willis said. "They did a quick snap on this one, and I actually got through the line. The quick snap caught us off guard, but it was effective because you make them speed up their process and all that kind of stuff."

Add in the fact that Willis' status coming into the game was in question after suffering a high ankle sprain in the Wild Card win over the Dallas Cowboys, and what happened Saturday night almost feels serendipitous for the 49ers.

"My ankle is doing good," Willis said. "It's been getting better and better. I believe by the end of the week I'll be as close to 100 percent as possible."

The 49ers knew from scouting the Packers that an opportunity was there to take advantage of what had been one of the league's worst special teams units throughout the season. They liked what they saw when it came to the matchup against the Packers' punt team and made the decision to come after them with Willis at the correct moment.

"Honestly, watching film leading up to that game, we had some thoughts that we could probably get after the guys up front," Willis said. "You could see it on film. Shout out again to Coach Hightower—he called the right play at the right time."

Video of the play shows Willis overpowering Packers long snapper Steven Wirtel, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 228 pounds. Willis did exactly what he set out to do on the play, which was to push the lighter Wirtel into the backfield, but he also happened to stick his hand up at the right time and create the play that turned the game in the 49ers' favor.

"Basically on the sideline, I happened to be standing next to Hightower, and he came up to me and another guy and was like, 'I'm thinking about calling this block,'" Willis said. "He showed me the picture and all that kind of stuff and told me what he wanted me to do. I said, 'I got it.' He basically just said to me, 'You're going to go out there and block it like you did in Cincinnati.' Then I took the field, and honestly in my mind I was going to get off the ball and be physical. And before you know it, the snapper's in the backfield, and then I'm putting my hand up and it's blocked. Then I'm looking around. I didn't even know that I blocked it; I just heard a sound. Then I started looking up for the ball and next thing you know, Talanoa picks it up and runs it in for a touchdown."

Interestingly enough, Willis didn't speak publicly about the blocked punt until Thursday because he didn't want to be viewed as having too big of a role in the team's success. Taking too much of the spotlight, Willis felt, would have been a disservice to what the rest of the team went through over the course of the season.

"For me, personally, I just didn't want to be taking all the praise for a team effort," Willis said. "This whole year has been such ups and downs for the team, so even though in that moment I was graced with the opportunity to block the punt, I don't want that to go down as that's the reason why we are sitting where we are. A lot of people have persevered to get here, and all the work the coaches put in night and night out, week in and week out, all the criticism Coach Shanahan's taken, all the criticism Jimmy Garoppolo's taken, all the criticism some of our top players on defense have taken, and they've all worked hard to dig us up out of this mess. I just didn't want to be just one play to be a defining moment for all the hard work this whole organization to be where we are."

That stance came as no surprise to fellow defensive lineman Nick Bosa, who said Willis is a true team player who would rather enjoy success with his teammates instead of searching for accolades.

"I think he doesn't really have a selfish bone in his body," Bosa said. "In professional sports in general, a lot of guys want the credit for wins and big plays and stats and stuff. He's truly somebody who just wants to play the game the right way and enjoy it with the rest of the D-Line guys. So he's awesome to have on the team. I'm just excited to continue to get to know him. I didn't get to spend any time with him last year because I was away (with a torn ACL), but it's been great to be his teammate this year."

But regardless of how Willis would prefer the play to be remembered, his name will forever be cemented in 49ers lore for what he did to turn the tide against the Packers. It was the biggest play of his NFL career, which is now in its fifth season after starting out as a third-round selection of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017.

"I do understand that this was a huge play," Willis said. "I'm very grateful that I had the opportunity to be in there and execute what the coaches asked of me. But I didn't want to take a ton of credit for it because Coach Hightower made the call. I just was the lucky guy that was able to execute what I was asked to do."

The blocked punt was also a special moment in what has been a trying season at times for Willis, who took a while to adjust to being back on the field after missing the first six weeks of the season due to a violation of the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. But he got back up to speed over time and settled into a valuable role for the 49ers down the stretch—one that reached its peak in the win in Green Bay.

"Jordan, he actually had a really great training camp," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "He was one of our better guys in training camp, and it was just unfortunate that he had a suspension and he had to miss time. But Jordan had been doing this early on in training camp, so it's no surprise. It's just a matter of missing football for such an extended period of time, it's just a matter of getting back used to it, getting the muscle memory back, so to speak. So he's been continuously getting better and better and better each week.

"And what a game. Jordan won us that game because of the play that he made, and I'm so happy for him. To be away for us for so long and to be here at this point in the playoffs and to come up with such a huge play for our team, I couldn't be more excited for anyone than Jordan. It was a huge play on a huge stage, so I'm happy he's able to get the recognition and credit that he deserves for making a big play for us."

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