The next installment of my series highlighting the most outstanding individual performances we saw from 49ers players during this past season will focus on the defensive side of the ball and a transcendent performance from a member of the front seven.
As a refresher, the factors I used to create this list include how did each performance hold up with the eye test. After going back and watching the game film, was it as impressive now as it was at the time?
I also heavily weighed the game’s impact, meaning the stakes of each contest played a pivotal role in how these rankings ultimately played out—finally, good old-fashioned statistics. So while the eye test was the primary factor being weighed, I also made it a point to place enough emphasis on the objective numbers a player posted in their respective games.
Without further ado, number nine on the list:
Azeez Al-Shaair @ Seattle Week 13
The first thing that probably comes to most people’s minds when they think back to this game is that the 49ers lost to the Seahawks in Seattle. Again. For what feels like the millionth time. For me, however, the thing that resonates the most are two special individual performances, both of which will make this top ten list.
One of which came from third-year linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, who looked like a bonafide All-Pro on the field that day. I spent a large portion of last season highlighting just how incredible Al-Shaair’s rapid rise to such a high level of play was, but in this game, he was otherworldly.
When you share the field with players like Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward, etc., it can become difficult to get your full due based simply on the amount of star power populating the field around you.
What makes this game so special was in spite of some very solid performances from the names mentioned above on that day, Al-Shaair left zero doubt in my mind that he was the most impressive defensive player on the field that day, and it was not particularly close either.
It was one of those games that left me feeling like not only did the 49ers stumble into a very productive starter at the linebacker position, but genuinely imagining a future where All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner is being flanked by a player who has the capability of matching his elite level of play.
Now I understand that Warner has a well-deserved amount of equity, and some people might not even entertain the thought that Al-Shaair is in the same class. Games like this showed that it is not only a fair discussion but one that needs to be had heading into the 2022 season.
Let’s take a look at some numbers from this contest. Al-Shaair finished this game with ten tackles, but what’s even more impressive is that he did so without missing a single tackle. On the surface, that may not jump out at the page at you, but this was not a game where Al-Shaair racked up those numbers making the safe play and bringing down opposing players in the second and third levels of the defense.
No, this was a game where Al-Shaair looked like a heat-seeking missile on the gridiron, constantly exploding into the Seattle backfield to disrupt the Seahawk’s offense. The precision that Al-Shaair operated with during this game was simply breathtaking and an absolute joy to watch.
Pro Football Focus has a stat for defensive players called “stops,” which is defined by any “tackle that constitutes a failure for the offense.” I think it’s a very useful tool because it adds another nuanced element to the traditional statistics, such as tackles for loss or sacks.
While those are extremely valuable in their own right, there is also tremendous value in generating “stops” that occur at or just beyond the line of scrimmage. For example, a tackle two yards beyond the line of scrimmage on a play that is going for 20 plus yards if the play isn’t made can be just as, if not more valuable than, a tackle made behind the line of scrimmage.
In this game in Seattle, Al-Shaair had EIGHT “stops.” Eight times in this game, Al-Shaair was credited with a tackle that constituted a failure for the Seahawk offense. Al-Shaair also recorded a sack in this game and held opposing receivers to 4.6 yards per reception on 11 targets.
However, the crowning moment of this performance came late in the fourth quarter. With the 49ers trailing 30-23 with about 6:30 left in the 4th quarter, the Seahawks converted a 4th & 1 to set up a 1st and Goal inside the 49ers’ 1-yard line. Seattle was in a position to punch the football across the goal line, take a two-touchdown lead and effectively seal a victory over their division rival.
After back-to-back rushing attempts on first and second down got absolutely blown up by defensive tackle DJ Jones, Seattle lined up for third and goal from the two-yard line. Taking the snap out of the shotgun, quarterback Russell Wilson began to roll to his right before stopping and hitting tight end Gerald Everett with a shovel pass, as Everrett broke from left to right behind the offensive line.
At first glance, it appeared it would be a walk-in touchdown and likely the end of any hope the 49ers had at winning this game. You just had to tip your cap to Seattle’s offensive staff for dialing that play call in that spot. That was before Al-Shaair had anything to say about it.
Al-Shaair rolled to his left, mirroring Russell Wilson as he rolled to the outside, and then proceeded to stop on a dime and cut back to the interior to meet Everrett just as he turned upfield in search of pay dirt after catching the football.
Al-Shaair displayed an elite change of direction ability while also possessing the lateral quickness to cut back so fast that the left guard who was pulling to his side completely whiffed on his block. Didn’t even get a finger on Al-Shaair, who connected with Everrett and not only stopped him short of the goal line but also met Everrett with so much force that the ball came loose and was recovered by the 49ers defense.
In one split second, the 49ers went from being dead in the water staring at a 14-point deficit with less than five minutes to play to now having a new life with the ball in their hands in a single possession game.
While the ensuing drive from the 49ers came up just short and ultimately didn’t end up with points on the board, the play made by Al-Shaair still is as impressive as ever. It really seemed to encapsulate the day Al-Shaair had as a whole. No matter the obstacle or circumstance, he was going to find a way to persevere and put his team in a position to win.
Circling back to what I said earlier, Al-Shaair is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. He and Fred Warner headline a linebacking unit that you could make a strong argument for as the most talented position on a loaded roster.
While the game resulted in a loss for the 49ers, I will always remember that game as Al-Shaair’s made a sweeping declaration that he was going to be wreaking havoc on NFC West opponents for a long time to come. Truly a remarkable performance in every sense of the word.
Stay tuned for #8 on the list, coming soon...