The loss of Kwon Alexander to the San Francisco 49ers defense stings. There is no replacing what he brought to the teams’ defense. Robert Saleh and the defensive staff have over a week to figure out how the Niners can move on from Alexander. There are likely three things that will happen, and one isn’t Elijah Lee, who will be promoted from San Francisco’s practice squad, assuming the team doesn’t sign a linebacker. Relying on a fifth-round or undrafted rookie may be the only option the team has at this point. There’s one other, too.
The easy answer is the fifth-rounder out of Arkansas. Greenlaw has started at “Sam” all season. The expectation is that he will slide over and take Alexander’s spot. Greenlaw played 27 snaps against the Cardinals. He played 29 snaps in a blowout against Carolina. The only other time this season he’s been on the field more than 20 snaps was Week 1 against Tampa Bay.
It’s not fair to expect the same type of production from Greenlaw. The good news is in 173 snaps, Greenlaw has not missed a tackle. Where Greenlaw will need to show improvements is where any rookie will need to show improvements at play recognition. That can be play-action, crossing routes, or different run schemes. It’s going to be difficult to come in the middle of the season at a new position, but Greenlaw is surrounded by some high football IQ players that will assist him on and off the field.
I won’t judge Greenlaw off one game. I won’t judge him off two. What I’d like to see from Greenlaw is development and not making the same mistakes weekly.
Long-term, I think he is the answer over Greenlaw. Watching the new during training camp and preseason, you saw plenty of promise between both linebackers. Unlike Greenlaw, Al-Shaair hasn’t played much at all this season. He’s been on the field 33 snaps all year. Before Carolina, Al-Shaair didn’t see the field since the Bengals blowout. You have to imagine both players will get a chance in practice.
For those that don’t know, Al-Shaair was injured in college, and that’s the reason he went undrafted. He is a very skilled player with athleticism and a nose for the football. As a tackler, Al-Shaair can bring it. We’re probably still a year away from him making an impact on this roster, but the UDFA out of Florida Atlantic may be sprinkled in the lineup if Greenlaw struggles, or if Saleh elects to go with athleticism at Sam over Mark Nzeocha.
I don’t think any of us know how this will work out. Like Greenlaw, it’s all about growth.
The 49ers will play Arizona again. They’ll also face Green Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta, and the Rams. All of these teams are known to spread it out and throw it all over the place. You don’t always need to replace a linebacker with a linebacker. If Saleh isn’t happy with the production, he is getting out of Alexander’s replacements, using an extra defensive back may be the better play. Will you lose a little bit in your rush defense? Of course. Most of the plays that involve San Francisco getting stops comes from one of the defensive linemen getting stops, anyway.
Saleh could elect to put Tarvarius Moore at safety, and slide Jaquiski Tartt in the box, Jimmie Ward in the slot with K’Waun Williams, and rely on coverage to get off the field. He can get creative here, as well. We’ve seen San Francisco run “dime” when they have been up big in games, and offenses are forced to pass. This is the direction I would go on third down. Forget positions; just put your best 11 players on the field. If that’s D.J. Reed Jr., then put him in over Moore.
The defense can get creative with looks upfront and pressure packages. The 49ers can also play more man coverage if that’s what Saleh chooses to do as well. This option gives you more options than your nickel package. Seattle isn’t a team that spreads it out often, but down the line, a dime package could be the answer.