One thing that’s been consistent this season for the 49ers defense is change. There have been changes in the secondary, changes on the defensive line, and multiple changes at linebacker. The one stalwart has been Fred Warner. We’ve seen him combined with three different linebackers, and no matter who is next to him, he always looks like the better player. He’s more composed, reads plays faster, and is rarely out of position. With most rookies, he’s not void of mistakes but once he gets a little more seasoning under his belt, I can’t see how he won’t be a pro bowler and defensive leader.
Warner jumped off the tape week one leading the 49ers with over 10 solo tackles against the Minnesota Vikings. While he’s had some ups and downs this season, as a third round rookie, he’s exceeding expectations on various fronts. He’s severely underrated when it comes to defensive rookie of the year odds, mostly due to the poor play of the team and defense overall. His individual grades compare to some of the best in the business. Check out this quote from pro football focus about Warner and his performance.
Among the 55 off-ball linebackers with at least 150 defensive snaps played in Weeks 8-12, Warner ranks third in overall grade (85.1) and, more impressively, first in coverage grade (88.6). Most recently, Warner earned an 86.9 single-game grade in the 49ers’ loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, picking up two defensive stops and allowing just 13 yards in coverage in the process.
Where Warner can improve is versus the run. Often times a linebacker needs to take on massive offensive lineman and then shed the blocker off of him as the runner approaches. Warner, with his quickness, dodges or runs around these blockers which works, but can cause him to miss the play. His ability to cover well is a more viable asset in today’s pass driven league. Let’s look at some film from his latest performance against Tampa Bay.
We will start with his play in the run game, which he went fairly well against the Bucs. Warner led the team, as he usually does in tackles, with six solo and one assist. He leads the team in total combined tackles this season with 84. The next closest 49er is Deforest Bucker with 39. This first clip actually includes both of the aforementioned players. It’s run to the left. Buckner gets the inside leverage on his blocker. Warner, almost like a running back, slides in behind him to avoid getting blocked. Warner then appears to actually push Buckner into the running back, which I thought was hilarious. That push forces the running back to avoid Buckner and make him cut right into the awaiting arms of Warner and K’Waun Williams.
In our next clip we see Warner navigate the big uglies up front. He never allows himself to get latched on to, as he ducks and dodges and eventually ends up right where the ball is for the gang tackle. He shows this instinctual type of talent week over week.
In our next clip we see a play that won’t end up on any stat sheet for Warner, but is part of the reason why the 49ers run defense is currently ranked 10th in average yards allowed, allowing 102.7 yards per game on the ground. The 49ers are only allowing four yards per carry on the year. Warner does a great job of shooting the gap and causing the runner to cut back. He’s through the line before anyone can even get a hold of him and leads to the tackle for loss by Williams.
Let’s check out some of Warner playing coverage. In today’s run and shoot NFL, having linebackers that can cover and close are important. Warner has shown he can do both consistently. In our first clip, it’s 3rd and long, Warner is about 20 yards off the line of scrimmage. The Bucs call a quick screen. Warner avoids the on coming blocker with ease, and stops the play after a 3 yard gain. That’s how you close and wrap.
Our next clip Tampa runs a play action bootleg concept with a receiver in the flat, and one running across the formation at the second level. They’re hoping either the strong side linebacker commits to the run and allows the tight end to leak into the flat, or they want the off ball backers to commit to the run, which would make them too shallow to cover the intermediate crossing route. Neither one of those things happen. The SLB, stays home and takes out the flat route. Warner initially steps towards the run, once he sees pass his instincts kick in, he reads the QBs eyes, turns and finds the open receiver to cover. The result of the play is a short run by Jameis Winston who has no where to go with the ball.
Our next clip Warner saves a touchdown. I know that Ahkello Witherspoon has been getting dragged lately through the media. Unfortunately he keeps putting plays like this on film. I’m not even sure what sort of coverage technique this is, he doesn’t jam Mike Evans, who isn’t exactly the must elusive receiver in the game. He’s strong but not a burner. Witherspoon then gets juked out of his cleats, spun around and leaves Evans wide open on the slant route. It’s possible Jaquiski Tartt gets over to make the tackle, but this play is pretty much six. Thankfully Warner, backing off the line and reading Winston finds himself in position to tip the pass. If he was 6’4 instead of 6’3 this would’ve been a great interception. The zone blitz concept almost got Jameis to throw us one.
In the next game the 49ers face the Seattle
Suckhawks Seahawks. We will get a chance to see Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, who are the prototypical linebackers in a comparable defensive scheme. It’s possible Robert Saleh saw some of those two in Warner when the 49ers took him in the third round. While Fred Warner is only on his first campaign he should do well against Seattle. As usual Russell Wilson will be another big test for this defensive unit. With his elusiveness in the pocket it’ll be important that Warner gets the team lined up correctly and ensures that they know their assignments both in run fills and when it comes to coverage. If they can get a big push from the middle of the line, they can force Wilson into some bad throws — similar to how the Dallas Cowboys defense pressed the issue against Drew Brees. Wilson and Brees share a similar stature both being barely over 6 ft tall. Middle pressure makes it hard for them to see the field. As Wilson moves outside to try and find passing lanes, Warner and co should be there to bottle him up. Go Niners!