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The linebacker play for the 49ers was on another level against the Vikings

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Fast. Smart. Sound.

Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

I thought we’d spend more time talking about the San Francisco 49ers win over the Minnesota Vikings, but after watching it was so one-sided that there wasn’t much to discuss from the game. Had it not been for one big play and an interception, Minnesota doesn’t score all game. One area I did want to touch on was the Niners linebackers, and how good they are. Robert Saleh had a couple of nice wrinkles to stop Minnesota’s bootleg/rollout game, which we’ll get to. The trio of Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander, and Dre Greenlaw allow the defense to be versatile and takeaway routes in coverage they have no business taking away.

What made Saturday impressive is they aren’t making these plays because the trio has natural athletic ability. They’re making plays because they are prepared. The linebackers aren’t falling for the same old mistakes you see every Sunday. Here are three plays to highlight Saleh’s adjustment and the linebackers skill.

Thank you, Goff

Maybe the best thing to happen to this defense was the success the Rams had Week 16 on rollouts and play-action. That’s a staple of the Vikings passing attack, and Saleh knew that going into the divisional round. If the Niners didn’t adjust, they’d be in for a long afternoon. Here is why Saleh will be a head coach, and a lot of it is recognition and awareness. Arik Armstead is unblocked on the play, and instead of him diving toward the running back, he goes straight for the quarterback. The real story here is Alexander, who is the “WILL” linebacker. Watch him. He hardly flinches on the play-action fake:

Reason 256 I’m not a fan of PFF grades. Alexander was one of the lowest graded defenders on the team. If you watch this play and your takeaway was “wow, he missed a tackle,” then you’re doing it wrong. The recognition to see Kirk Cousins turn his back and know play-action is on the way is incredible from Alexander. It’s a nice change from Saleh, as the bootleg really hurt them in weeks past.

Trusting what you see

The Vikings called several passes that were intended to be thrown down the field, but it never worked out for them. Generally, a play-action fake draws the linebackers up and opens up windows for you down the field. There was nothing general about the Niner’s performance. Greenlaw can fly. He had more solo tackles than any other linebacker during the second half of the season, but his coverage came along, and that was more important than any tackle stat. On this play below, watch how much ground Greenlaw covers:

The coverage is “3-match,” and since the 49ers Nickel goes to the strength, and Jaquiski Tartt goes to the weak side of the formation. Tartt likely has an “under” call, which indicates to the rest of the defense he will stay short with any flat route by the No. 2 receiver, who is Kyle Rudolph in the backfield in this scenario. What’s that mean for Greenlaw? He’s responsible for the hook/curl zone and has to get depth in coverage. Generally, that’s between 8-12 yards. Again, this is preparation. Greenlaw could stop at 12 yards, but why? He’s playing football and relating to receivers and not grass. Him getting to that deep “over” route and forcing a check down is a fantastic display of Greenlaw’s coverage skills.

The Vikings had every intention to hit big plays, but the Niners took them away. From the first quarter, when the above play happened, to late in the fourth quarter, when Jimmie Ward came from Sacramento to make this play:

They are everywhere. Look at the other receivers. There’s no where to throw the ball.

On the prior drive, Greenlaw made a five-yard tackle on a screen that looked like it was going to break for a big gain, but he avoided a cut block to make the tackle. Greenlaw is a lot more than a player running fast.

Middle of the field monster

We have Kwon playing short, Dre playing deep, and Fred taking away the middle of the field. Warner didn’t have many flashy plays in this one, just sound football that we’ve came to expect. Here is what most of Fred’s coverages looked like Saturday:

He moves like a defensive back. That’s the second level defenders for you. So Minnesota playing in so much 12 personnel gave San Francisco an even bigger advantage than they already had. The team speed overwhelmed the Vikings, but it was the 49ers recognition on defense that was the reason they shut down Minnesota.