clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Top 10 most impressive individual performances from the 2021 season: #5 - Fred Warner @ Green Bay - Divisional Round

Warner played out of his mind in this one

NFC Divisional Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

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 five on the list:

Fred Warner - Divisional Round @ Green Bay

Who could forget such a memorable postseason matchup between the two teams who have met the most in the playoffs over the last quarter-century? The 49ers discredited any stigma attached to a west coast team and marched into the frozen tundra at Lambeau to discard the number one seed in sub-zero temperatures.

This was a game the 49ers weren't favored to win and one that plenty of people didn't even give them a shot to stay competitive in. Facing back-to-back league MVP Aaron Rodgers and the explosive Packers offense, the 49ers' defense put on a heroic performance to hold Green Bay to only 13 points.

This effort was spearheaded by linebacker Fred Warner, who put on a dazzling performance that reminded many why he is the best linebacker in the NFL. This was an absolute masterclass by Warner, which is fitting considering he did it against the quarterback in Rodgers, who has made it clear how much he respects Warner's game.

After their Week 9 meeting in 2020, Rodgers told Warner postgame, "Ain't nobody better. There really isn't. You're the best, and everybody knows it. The film don't lie."

Mr. Rodgers is right, the film does not lie, and I put together some cut-ups to show how special Warner was in this pivotal playoff matchup. Let's start on the Packers' opening drive, with Green Bay facing a first and ten just shy of midfield. Rodgers tosses the ball to running back Aaron Jones, who is met in the backfield by Warner and brought down behind the line of scrimmage for a loss.

Warner quickly diagnoses this play before exploding upfield through the A gap before Packers center Josh Myers can get off the double team block he is engaged in with nose tackle DJ Jones.

Warner's ability to read and react is second to none, and it was on full display during that tackle for loss. Warner also possesses tremendous speed and an understanding of angles that often expedites his path to ball carriers in the open field, which was reflected in the very next play.

Rodgers threw a swing pass to Jones on the right side before the Packers running back burst upfield into the second level of the 49ers' defense. Warner breaks off his coverage assignment on the far hash and is able to track down Jones and make a tackle that likely prevents a touchdown or, at the very least, takes away an additional 15-20 yards from the Packers' offense.

Plays like this may not seem overly important in a vacuum, but in the grand scheme of things, these chase downs in the open field add up to a significant amount of yardage that is effectively taken off the board as a result. Here is Warner doing the same thing on the Packers' second drive of the game.

Despite the strong effort from Warner and the 49ers' defense to start this one, the Packers' offense came out firing on all cylinders to open this game. They methodically drove down the field on a 10-play 65-yard touchdown drive on their first possession and appeared well on their way to capping off their second drive with points. That was before Warner made what I would argue is the play of this game.

Before breaking down the play, I'd like to set the stage for just how pivotal this sequence was in the grand scheme of things. This play occurred on a first and 10 from the 49ers ' yard line, with 4:20 remaining in the first quarter. The Packers were coming off of another play that moved the chains, racking up their sixth first down of the game.

Prior to this play, the Packers had run 14 plays, resulting in 99 yards, good for 7.4 yards per clip. They were seemingly moving the ball at will against a very stout 49ers defense, and San Francisco was staring directly in the face of a scenario that would have put them down double digits on the road at Lambeau against the #1 seed in the entire NFL.

Back to the play. Green Bay calls a play-action rollout, faking a hand-off to running back AJ Dillon on the right side before Rodgers rolls back to his left off of the play fake. Tight end Marcedes Lewis helps sell the run fake by engaging with Samson Ebukam off the snap before breaking off his block and leaking into the flat.

Rodgers throws in the flat to Lewis, who would have had an abundance of open field ahead of him if not for Warner diagnosing this play and reading the play-action properly, not biting on the play fake, and instead focusing his attention on Lewis.

You probably remember what happens next: Warner meets Lewis when he turns upfield. Warner punches at the football while wrapping up Lewis, knocking the ball free before fellow linebacker Dre Greenlaw pounced on it for a 49ers recovery, ending a Packers drive that appeared well on its way to ending with more points on the board for Green Bay.

Halting this drive in the moment was huge, but nobody could have guessed just how much of a momentum swing this play would turn out to be.

Before this play, the Packers had scored seven points in a little less than 11 minutes while averaging 7.1 yards per play. After this forced fumble by Warner, Green Bay's offense only mustered three points in the remaining 49 minutes of this game while only averaging 4.1 yards per play.

What makes it even more impressive is if you wipe out the 75-yard reception from Rodgers to Jones on a blown coverage just before halftime, the yards per play drops to 2.3 over the final 49 minutes of this game. This play sparked a defensive effort that was heroic, given the circumstances. To hold an offense piloted by the reigning and back-to-back MVP to 3 points over the final 75% of a playoff game is the stuff of legend.

This play was flat-out incredible and probably Warner's best of the day, but it really was just a microcosm of just how special this performance was. Warner's ability to effectively fit gaps in the run game directly led to a handful of rushing attempts that resulted in a loss of yardage for the Packers' offense.

On the first play of the second quarter, the Packers faced a second and seven from their own 20-yard line. Green Bay dials up a hand-off to the left side, but Warner fits his run gap perfectly, blowing this play up behind the line of scrimmage for a loss.

More of the same with 9:33 left in the second quarter and Green Bay facing a first and ten from their own 38-yard line. The Packers come out in an 11-personnel look, with Jones alone in the backfield. Rodgers gives to Jones, who is met in the A Gap by Warner, before diverted to safety Jaquiski Tartt and brought down behind the line of scrimmage for a loss.

Finally, just before halftime, with Green Bay facing a first and ten from their own four-yard line, Warner again demonstrates immaculate technique when fitting his run gap before bringing down Dillon near the line of scrimmage.

The range and IQ Warner possesses, married with his elite physical traits, make him an absolute nightmare to run the football against. Green Bay ran the ball 20 times for 67 yards in this game, a clip of only 3.4 yards per carry, in large part because of the diligence Warner showed playing his gap responsibilities.

Warner's impact in the run game is a bit easier to quantify with tangible statistics than his impact in coverage, but this game highlighted what makes Warner the best off-ball linebacker in the sport. These coverage reps will never get the love that forcing turnovers or blowing up run plays in the backfield will, but they are vital to the success of this defense and played a major part in the 49ers leaving Lambeau with a win.

It truly amazes me how easy Warner makes it look when he is tasked with carrying #3 vertically up the seam. It is so rare for a linebacker to possess the ability to stick with tight ends and wide receivers in open space the way Warner does, and that skill set is such a major part of what makes this 49ers defense so tough to go against for opposing offenses.

With 1:37 remaining in the first quarter, the Packers faced a third and six from their own 20-yard line. Green Bay came out in 11 personnel, with tight end Dominique Dafney lined up in the slot outside the shoulder of the right tackle.

Warner not only sticks with Dafney as he works vertically up the stem of his route but is also able to plaster the Packers' tight end 30 yards upfield during a scramble drill as Rodgers evades a collapsing pocket.

Just before halftime, with the Packers deep in 49ers territory, Warner was tasked with maintaining the inside leverage while carrying wide receiver Randle Cobb vertically. Per usual, Warner does a tremendous job, and Rodgers is forced to hold on to the ball just long enough for Nick Bosa to get home with pressure and force a strip-sack.

This led to a field goal attempt, which was ultimately blocked and kept the Packers from getting points before the half. Warner's ability to cover ground vertically in coverage is second to none among linebackers in the NFL.

More of this is on display with 7:54 remaining in the third quarter and the Packers facing a third and ten from their own 32-yard line. Warner is lined up in the A gap on the nearside hash before the snap and ends up carrying Cobb up the seam 20 yards upfield outside the far hash. This kind of range from an inside backer who can also fit run gaps the way Warner does is unprecedented.

With the 49ers trailing by seven points with a little more than five minutes to play, Green Bay faced a third and eight from their own 23-yard line. The 49ers had to have a stop here, and again Warner left a huge impact on a pivotal play in this game.

Once again, 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has Warner line up in the A gap pre-snap showing pressure. After the snap, Warner drops to the far side hash and effectively takes away the threat of Rodgers having any kind of success throwing an in-breaking route to Cobb.

Warner finished this game with six tackles, three of which went for a loss. Warner was targeted three times in coverage, only allowing one catch which went for a whopping zero-yard gain. And, of course, forced the fumble that really became the momentum shift in this game that ultimately propelled the 49ers to victory.

The statistics were there, the film looked fantastic, and this was about as big of a game as it could possibly be given the stakes, the opponent, and the location. Warner checked every box for the criteria for this list and is beyond deserving of his place within the top five.

Before I conclude, I just have to say how much I enjoyed going back and watching the film from this game. It is an absolute pleasure getting to watch one of the best in the business play at such an elite level in one of the most classic settings the NFL has to offer.

Stay tuned for number four on the list, coming soon.

Here is the up-to-date list thus far:

#10 - Trent Williams @ Cincinnati Week 14

#9 - Azeez Al-Shaair @ Seattle Week 1

#8- Charles Omenihu @ Dallas Wild Card Round

#7 - DJ Jones @ Seattle Week 13

#6 - Jimmy Garoppolo vs Los Angeles Week 10

#5 - Fred Warner @ Green Bay Divisional Round