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Top 10 most impressive performances from 22’, No. 3: Fred Warner vs. the Cowboys

Warner showing once again why the box score doesn’t tell the whole story

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

For a second consecutive season, the 49ers’ path through the postseason would have to go through their oldest and most hated rival—the Dallas Cowboys.

These are the games where stars become legends. Where postseason heroics immortalize players into icons, it is a make-or-break time when the lights are the brightest, and on this particular stage, no star shined brighter than Fred Warner.

To give a glimpse into my rationale for why Warner’s performance is ranked so high on this list, I want to clarify that what he accomplished on its own holds tremendous weight. It was a sensational all-around game that serves as the gold standard for the linebacker position in today’s NFL.

It also must be considered that this was the first game where the 49ers’ offense had struggled to put up points since Brock Purdy had taken over as the starting quarterback. Before the divisional round game against Dallas, the 49ers averaged 34.8 points per game in the previous six games Purdy had started. They scored 19 against Dallas.

The high-octane offense that ran roughshod over its opponents over the last month of the season had finally met its match. Points would be at a premium in this game, making every stop and game-altering play worth its weight in gold.

Warner immediately established the tone in this game, playing a pivotal role in keeping the Cowboys' offense behind the sticks as they attempted to make a statement early on.

He highlighted his ability to get north to south by any means necessary, showing incredible balance while firing into the A-gap to bring down running back Tony Pollard for a loss on the Cowboys’ third play from scrimmage:

On the Cowboys’ second series of the game, Warner speeds past an attempted block by Lamb before bringing down Pollard at the line of scrimmage for no gain. That kept the Dallas offense in a third-and-long situation, leading to an errant pass that Deommodore Lenoir picked off on the very next play:

The 49ers and Cowboys were deadlocked in a 6-6 tie just before halftime. Dallas got the ball on their own 35 with 3:28 remaining in the second quarter. With Dallas also set to receive the kickoff to start the second half, this would be a crucial turning point in this game.

Here was a golden opportunity for Dallas to firmly seize the momentum, especially if they could double up on points going into and coming out of the half. At a bare minimum, it provided an avenue to enter the locker room at the break, holding the lead on the road against a tough opponent.

Early on in this drive, Warner’s lateral agility produced a timely stop of running back Ezekiel Elliott, who had narrowly avoided a massive hit by Charvarius Ward.

Dallas continued to march down the field, getting deep into 49ers territory as the clock ticked. Following a clutch fourth down conversion, the Cowboys’ offense got inside the 49ers’ 20-yard line after an eight-yard gain on first down.

With 1:24 remaining in the first half, Dallas faced a 2nd & 2 from the San Francisco 18-yard line. What happened next changed the entire trajectory of this game.

Quarterback Dak Prescott attempted to hit CeeDee Lamb near the left hash, but defensive back Jimmie Ward had other ideas. He was able to jump the route and get his hands on the ball, tipping it up in the air before Warner was able to haul it in for an interception:

Warner ran it back 16 yards to the 28-yard line, flipping the tables to give the 49ers a chance to end the first half on a high note. That is precisely what they did, marching 40 yards to set up a Robbie Gould field goal that put them up 9-6.

Part of what made this such a transcendent performance by the 49ers’ star linebacker was how often he was near the ball. Whether it was a solo tackle or helping one of his teammates, it felt like nearly every play involved Warner swarming as if there were a magnetic connection between him and the ball carrier.

A great example came early in the third quarter. On a rollout to his left, Prescott aims to hit tight end Dalton Schultz in the flat. Warner was able to quickly diagnose his intentions, breaking from the far hash towards Schultz before assisting Talanoa Hufanga in bringing him down for a short gain of just two yards:

While the interception to close the first half may have had the largest impact in this game, I’d argue the most impressive play came late in the third quarter. With Dallas again driving deep into 49ers territory in a tie game, the Dallas offense faced a 3rd & 5 from the San Francisco 40-yard line.

In a game where points were at a premium, the 49ers would once again rely on their stalwart defense to produce a stop at this critical juncture. The result of this play may seem routine after watching Warner week after week for the last five years, but the process of how it came to be is what makes it so special.

Warner is lined up near the line of scrimmage, mugging the A gap away from the pass strength (the side of the field with more receivers). Lamb is lined up in the slot to the pass strength outside the far hash.

Because Warner is presenting this mugged look, the offense must account for the variables that come with the possibility of him bringing pressure up the middle. In theory, the distance from Lamb also makes it less likely that he will be responsible for carrying the Cowboys’ star wideout vertically up the field.

For 99 percent of NFL linebackers, that would be a fair assumption. Unfortunately for Dallas, Warner is the outlier.

As the ball is snapped, Warner bails from the mug look he showed pre-snap, working back toward the far hash where Lamb is pushing vertically up field. With the 49ers bringing Tashaun Gipson on a pressure, the middle of the field was now open and had no safety help over the top.

That meant that Warner was alone, on an island, with one of the best wide receivers in the entire NFL. If the 49ers were going to be able to get the crucial stop they so badly needed, he would have to be the one to deliver it.

And deliver it he did:

The sheer amount of ground that Warner covers here is remarkable. Working up field at an angle to cut off the stem of Lamb’s route and then ran stride for stride before breaking up this pass attempt 30 yards up field.

This kind of play from a linebacker in any setting would be a breathtaking phenomenon, but it increases tenfold when you factor in everything at play here. Tie game in the playoffs between arguably the two most storied rivals in the history of the NFL? The stage doesn’t get much bigger than that, and at that moment, Warner does what he does best. He shined.

Even more impressive was the fact this was not an isolated incident. There were multiple times in this game where Warner was tasked with carrying Lamb vertically twenty-plus yards up field:

I charted six snaps in this game where Warner carried Lamb vertically, or Warner was the closest defender in coverage. Here are the receiving totals from those six snaps:

3 targets

1 reception

6 yards

1 pass break up

1 interception

2.78 passer rating

In a game where Lamb exceeded 100 receiving yards and was by far the Cowboys’ most potent offensive weapon, Warner was the player who found the most success in shutting him down.

All while remaining a force near the line of scrimmage that recorded a handful of tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. It was as complete of a performance as you could have asked for in a game of this magnitude and a perfect example of why you cannot put a price on the one-of-a-kind versatility Warner brings to this 49ers defense.

Here are his total numbers for the game:

9 tackles


1 tackle for loss

1 pass break up

1 interception

19.8 passer rating when targeted