The San Francisco 49ers defense took a major step forward in 2019. A lot of that can be attributed to a pass rush that continuously overwhelmed opposing offensive lines. Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead were terrors when they were on the field together. That wasn’t the only position where the 49ers improved. When you watched San Francisco’s defense in 2018, they were a step slow at the second level. Adding speed was imperative for what defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was asking his linebackers to do.
Between Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander, and Dre Greenlaw, the 49ers eliminated offenses short passing attack. San Francisco was second in DVOA against tight ends and first by a longshot at taking away running backs. They got into throwing lanes and closed on receivers before they had a chance to get going. While it’s easy to remember the missed tackles that were costly in the Super Bowl, that wasn’t the case during the season. The majority of tackles that were missed by the linebackers were cleaned up by another defender in a split-second. A good portion of those misses wouldn’t have even been attempted for most linebackers. That’s how fast these guys were. It was fun to watch.
Last month, I found one play in each game where Alexander had an impact. The football IQ both him and Warner showed the first half of the season was second to none. The 49ers had the second-best pass defense against all throws under ten yards this season, and you can thank the linebackers for that. Often the quarterback had to go to another read because his initial target was covered. If the quarterback hesitated, the Niners linebackers made them pay, as you can see around the:20 second mark:
These are the plays Kwon Alexander made on Sunday….in the second quarter. pic.twitter.com/Gb2ZSfqBaZ— KP (@KP_Show) September 18, 2019
Alexander was impressive as far as his instincts go. Warner was elite. The Ravens game was a great example:
Warner’s best plays don’t involve him breaking up passes, though. The routes that he recognized before they developed is what stood out to me:
fred warner is the best linebacker in the league idc idc. this is unreal recognition pic.twitter.com/8FpulzD9ZR— betz (@alltwentytwo) October 15, 2019
Because we can’t assign stats/grades to that, Warner didn’t get credit for non-targets. I’m here to tell you that Warner was the best coverage linebacker in the NFL. That’s not me being hyperbolic, or playing to a crowd. That’s not how I watch football. This sport is more enjoyable when you tell it how it is and don’t have the “fanboy bias.” Warner is a particular player, and him being in his second season is scary knowing there is still room to improve.
Nobody is going to confuse the three linebackers for your old school “thumper” types. The Takeo Spikes of the NFL have been phased out. That doesn’t mean you can’t be aggressive. Greenlaw struggled with this initially but improved as the season went along. With how the 49ers lineup on defense, there is going to be a linebacker that must take on an uncovered offensive lineman. That is no fun, as you’re giving up anywhere between 50-70 pounds. One thing that I appreciated from Alexander was the recklessness he played with, for lack of a better term. Kwon did his job so Fred could make the play.
Alexander was rewarded with stops and a sack against the Browns from this aggressive style of play. Were there times when one of the linebackers were out of position? Sure. The consistent mentality of “I’m going to do whatever it takes so my teammate can make a play” made this defense one of the top units in the NFL. They played like a team, and it showed.
Set at the second-level
The 49ers have good problems at linebacker. Azeez Al-Shaair will continue to be a special teamer that develops. Since Week 10, no linebacker in the NFL had more solo tackles than Greenlaw. A rookie fifth-round selection turned into a budding star. From the interception in overtime to the game-sealing tackle in Week 17, Dre found ways to affect the game. Most of the time, you want your rookie to go out there and not cost you big plays. Greenlaw made plays. He has a bright future.
Before the injury, it was Alexander that was known as the best coverage linebacker in the NFL. He led the NFL in passer rating allowed. Seeing him and Warner play side-by-side and communicate together was as fun as it gets if you’re a fan of defensive football. I hope they both stay healthy because we are talking about two special talents.