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Film room: Non-defensive line key players on defense part 1 - Fred Warner

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Deep dive into the quarterback of the defense, linebacker Fred Warner

Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Through week seven, the 49ers are 6-0 and are ranked number two overall in Football Outsiders DVOA team defense metric, ranking number one against the pass and number 12 against the run. Recently against the Rams, the defense held an explosive offense that averages nearly 400 yards per game this season to just 157 total yards. They held quarterback Jared Goff to just 78 yards passing, and after their first touchdown drive of all runs and 56 total yards, held the Rams to just 53 yards rushing. And this past Sunday, they shut out the Redskins on the road.

Many of the accolades for the defensive success so far primarily reside with the defensive line, specifically the play of rookie Nick Bosa and newly acquired defensive end Dee Ford, as well as veterans DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. The hot name around the NFL right now, aside from defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, is defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who, along with pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin, has the 49ers front four thoroughly dominating their opponents in the trenches.

But for all the accolades the front four and it’s rotation are getting, it is worth mentioning that there are other standout players and although they might not show up on the stat sheet, are quietly having great seasons in their right. In this three-part series, we’ll look at Fred Warner in part one, linebacker Kwon Alexander in part two, and defensive backs Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, and Emmanuel Moseley in part three. The pass rush and the coverage complement each other very well. When the rush can’t get home in time, the coverage picks up the slack. And the front four doesn’t do it all against the run either.

Fred Warner could easily be one of the best middle linebackers in the league. He was thrust into the position as a rookie last season after being drafted out of BYU, where he played outside linebacker/safety. When he stepped onto the field for the first time for the 49ers, he was tasked with being the primary signal-caller for the defense, and he never looked back. He showed early last season what a dynamic player he is, a level he kept up all season.

Pass coverage

Since Week 1 last season, Warner has shown that he has the speed and coverage ability to play defense, he did it against some of the league’s best last season, most notably shutting down Stephon Diggs and Odell Beckham Jr. on a few occasions.

He’s picking up right where he left off last season. On this play from week one against the Buccaneers, Warner is matched up in coverage against receiver Chris Godwin. Normally, a receiver of Godwin’s caliber would be able to shake a middle linebacker and give his quarterback a target to throw too, but Warner is not your average linebacker.

Winston, under pressure from the defensive line, can get a pass off to Godwin. Warner’s elite change of direction ability and can flip his hips fluidly and run with Godwin the entire time. Godwin tries to shake him, but Warner is there with a great closing burst on the ball, allowing him to bat the pass away.

It cannot be stated enough that stats for any player do not tell the whole story. Fred Warner is capable of affecting the game in more ways than just recording passes defended or tackles for losses.

He’s also made several plays that could arguably be the difference in the Steelers game and the play above is one example of that. The 49ers are in a cover-4 pass defense shell in the red zone (really cover 6 but in the Wade Phillips tree is cover-4). The Steelers have trips to the left with the two slot receivers switch releasing. Warner is the other zone match #2/#3 defender, the defender responsible for taking either the #2 or #3 receiver in his zone. The #3 ends up being receiver is Juju Smith-Schuster, who runs the deep over the middle route.

Smith-Schuster is a nightmare match-up for any linebacker or as the overhang defender in the flat. However, Warner is not just an average linebacker. The pass coverage forced Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph to pull the ball and scramble after seeing no one else open. The defense would eventually hold them to a field goal.

Play recognition

One of the stronger attributes that Warner possesses is the ability to read the plays before they develop and moving into throwing lanes to eliminate the quarterback’s progressions.

Here, the Browns are in a trips formation to the left running a dagger concept by the #1 and #2 receivers into the middle of the field while the #3 receiver vertical stems before cutting across the middle of the field on the dig. The dagger concept and the inside dig would give quarterback Baker Mayfield a horizontal stretch reading the strong hook defender (Warner).

The 49ers are in cover-4 again with Fred Warner as the match #2/#3 defenders. He locates the dig by the number one coming across the middle as he passes off the vertical to safety Jaquiski Tartt. Warner initially drops down the seam reading Mayfield’s eyes and eliminates the read right away. Warner passes off the #3 to the safety and slides to remove the dig by #1 as well when he feels it developing. Mayfield has to scramble by this point and makes a throw down the sideline that would ultimately be overturned to an incomplete pass.

In fact, there are numerous instances on film of Warner removing two routes and putting the quarterback in conflict.

Warner reads the play develop here, a variation of McVay/Shanahan’s “pull shallow” concept. The tight end and the slot receiver switch release their routes with the tight end running the deeper “pull basic” route over the top of the shallow hitch route. The proximity of the routes clues warner that if one is going shallow, the other is likely going deeper down the seam over the top of the shallow route.

That kind of route combo recognition cannot be taught. It feels very instinctual for Warner. He walls off the hitch and flips around to get down the seam to remove the dig over the middle. By this time, Goff had to come off the hitch and was likely going to look for the deeper route behind it, but the pass rush got there. Had he been able to get a throw off, Warner likely would’ve intercepted it, or Goff would’ve thrown it away or been sacked anyway.

Run defense

Warner’s incredible play speed has been on display throughout his short career. His athleticism and in-game instincts allow him to fight through traffic and locate the ball carrier and his lateral speed enables him to close down on ball carriers before they can get upfield.

Of course, having a defensive line that can keep the linebackers free to roam sideline to sideline is also good and necessary, but those linebackers have to be able to do that in the first place. Warner can. Here, Warner closes Malcolm Brown as the force defender. Brown bounces out, realizing that if he can beat Warner to the edge rather than cut back inside, he can run behind his blockers to the trips side. But he can’t outrun Warner to the edge. Warner’s lateral speed and open-field tackling ability stifle this run for a two-yard loss.

Even if he doesn’t get a free in with no traffic in front of him, he’s still shown an ability to fight through and make tackles.

Here against the Browns in week five, Warner again shows great lateral speed to fight through contact from two defenders to make the tackle on Nick Chubb for a minimal gain. The Browns are running an inside zone running play (movement of the play side lineman is upfield rather than lateral) to eliminate the second-level defenders. Warner’s run fit is the C-gap to the left of the left tackle and between the stand-up tight end.

He fills the gap expertly. The tight end chips him and aims to disrupt the timing of the defense’s pursuit long enough to spring Chubb free. But Warner’s lateral movement ability keeps him flowing to the ball carrier, even as the lineman gets another shot on him. He keeps his balance and fights through the blockers to the short side of the field and makes a nice open-field tackle on Chubb for barely a two-yard gain.


Warner is not getting the recognition nationally that he should be. His level of play has arguably elevated a talented defense and contributed to some of the success the front four is largely credited with. And he’s been doing it for since week one of his rookie season thus far. Having Kwon Alexander next to him as he has only sharpened his skills and raised his level of play beyond what he showed last year.

The 49ers have had no shortage of linebacker talent for the last decade with Bowman and Willis, and it’s uncertain if Warner and Alexander are on that level just yet, but they’re having an enormous impact on the league’s second-ranked defense, Warner in particular. And so far, Warner has become one of the better draft picks the 49ers have snagged in the Shanahan era.