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A Fred Warner masterclass re-established 49ers’ defensive identity

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday was a reminder.

The 49ers defense is obstinate; an oppressive force of physicality, speed and intelligent scheming.

After a handful of underwhelming performances, they returned in league-best form when they had to hold firm. The Dallas Cowboys — the fourth-highest scoring offense in the regular season (27.5 points per game) and coming off a 4 TD drubbing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — mustered 12 points.

Like Jay-Z — “Allow me to reintroduce myself” — it was a PSA. This defense is back, not that it ever left.

At the center — literally — of that defense, is Fred Warner.

His performance against Dallas was downright magnificent. He was all-enveloping, shutting down swathes of space over the middle of the field, assaulting the line of scrimmage with nonsensical range and unforgiving velocity.

There were myriad plays that show the full range of Warner’s ability. But the *chef’s kiss* moment, the one that leaves you shaking your head — and why he’s been voted the best linebacker in the league by fellow players and pundits for two-straight years — is this one, with a bit more than six minutes in the third quarter.

The ability he has to flash the A-gap as a potential blitzer, then drop into coverage, carrying a vertical route from one of the league’s best young receivers — and the Cowboys’ only offensive lifeline in the second half — in CeeDee Lamb defies logic.

He had a team-high nine tackles (one for a loss), a pass breakup, and the interception off the Jimmie Ward deflection. Here’s a recap of some of what he did on Sunday (S1 stands for series one and so one):

  • S1, 1st/10: Backfield run stop on Tony Pollard through the A Gap
  • S1, 3rd/7: Carried CeeDee Lamb vertically, was an incomplete pass towards Schultz
  • S2, 2nd/9: Backfield stop again on Pollard on 2nd down, blows by an attempt at a block from Lamb
  • S3: Only Dallas TD drive, and was his worst. Could’ve had a stop on Lamb on a 3rd and 7 that he missed
  • S4, 1st/10: Ranges to his left, makes an athletic, half-suplex tackle on Zeke Elliot for a 3-yard run
  • S4, 2nd/2: INTERCEPTION, had Lamb covered well, leveraged him towards his help in Jimmie Ward, who deflected it. Warner plucked the deflection for an INT
  • S5, 2nd/7: Took Elliott out of the play as an escape valve, forced Dak into sliding for a stop short of the sticks
  • S5, 1st/10: Clobbered Dalton Schultz for a 2-yard gain on a short throw – ranged over to pick him up in coverage, then hit him
  • S5, 3rd/7: (After the muffed punt, in the red zone), would’ve crushed Elliott well short of the end zone and possibly forced a drop if Elliott hadn’t dropped it on his own
  • S6, 2nd/10: Helped on a stop for 4 yards by shooting the gap well/adjusting Elliott’s rush lane
  • S6, 3rd/5: *The play* Flashes the A-Gap, then carries Lamb vertically and forces an incompletion deep over the middle
  • S7, 3rd/7: Hit sticks Lamb on a 6-yard catch
  • S9, 1st/10: Hits Michael Gallup on a halfhearted deep throw by Prescott with time winding down. Would’ve moved Dallas to the 40 if completed.

He is the modern linebacker. He has fundamentally changed what we expect a linebacker to be. It’s not a 250-pound bruiser in charge of flattening running backs every other play (though at 6’3″, 230 pounds, Warner is physically imposing).

It’s invading the mind of a quarterback with threats of blitzes, unpredictable coverage responsibilities and the ability to defend every single skill position player on the field.

Jimmie Ward, who is never at a loss for words, ran out of them, in describing Warner.

“He’s the best covering linebacker in ball,” Ward said. “And that’s the reason why he’s getting paid like he is and that’s the reason why he’s been a captain for multiple years. And then just him as a person, a man, a great leader. Like I can’t even think what else to say about the guy. You see what he does on the field. He makes plays.”

Here’s a word for you. It’s a German one that might give Warner’s former German colleague, Mark Nzeocha, a chuckle: Raumdeuter.

Bear with me.

One of the most unique and under-appreciated players in soccer, Thomas Müller, created a position founded on being positionless.

He is everywhere and nowhere, omnipresent while invisible.

Müller was dubbed the raumdeuter, which translates to “space investigator” or “space interpreter.”

The way he operated was unique. His role became the system of offense for the German national team, and his club team, Bayern Munich. He fundamentally understands the flow of the game and how space can be attacked and molded to his team’s advantage.

The term refers more to offense, and Müller had to develop that ingenious knack for exploiting space because he lacks physical tools.

But the term can be applied to Warner’s defense. The difference — sport, language, etc. aside — is that he has all the physical tools.

Much like Travis Kelce exploits gaps in zone coverage and has an innate knack to sit down in pockets of space, Warner closes them.

Quarterbacks who like to target the middle of the field — *coughs in Jimmy Garoppolo* —tend to struggle against Warner. To be fair, most offenses struggle against the 49ers’ defense. But Warner’s vacuum-sealing impact and ability to cover everyone, at every level of the field, is much to do with his influence.

He’s also a known trash talker.

There is a chasmic shift Warner makes when he steps on the field. Off the field he has a relatively laid back disposition, providing thoughtful answers and operating like the even-keeled leader you’d hope he’d be.

On the field he’s Joker-ish.

He breaks the team down and hypes them up before practice and games. Before the playoff-clinching win over the Seahawks, he let out a fired-up, “We hate these boys! We hate these motherfuckers!”

He loves trash talk.

He flexes in opponents’ faces, points at them, flat out smiling in their face at times; anything you’d find disrespectful or infuriating as someone struggling the move the ball against the 49ers’ defense, he makes sure to employ.

It’s not without purpose.

Remember back at the start of training camp? Brandon Aiyuk seemed poised to take a leap. Fred Warner concurred with that assessment. But he felt Aiyuk could use a nudge, or maybe a shove, in the right direction.

You could hear Warner talking, talking, talking, especially to Aiyuk. He showed him some extra love in full contact practices that eventually led to a few scuffles when Aiyuk took a few swings at him, and the two ended up on the ground.

Warner admitted he was trying to bother Aiyuk to get the best out of him. And Aiyuk has been at his best. He was the 49ers’ leading receiver, notching an 1,000-yard receiving season for the first time in his career. He’s a clear top-25 receiver and one of the most complete in the league.

To credit Warner entirely for Aiyuk’s rise this season would be inaccurate. But greatness breeds greatness. The challenge he levied against a teammate, and the respect he showed, ironically, through seeming disrespect, encouraged Aiyuk to be aggressive.

Said DeMeco Ryans this week:

I love the energy, I love the leadership that Fred provides for our team. Not only for the defense. He’s just an outstanding guy, outstanding player and he does an outstanding job of motivating the guys and making sure they’re locked in, not just on game day. That’s what sets him apart. Fred is the same way throughout the week, so it’s not just on gameday for the cameras. He is who he is. He’s been consistent for us. He’s a consistent leader, steady in his preparation, steady in his performance as well.

Great captains know how to push the right buttons, but they gain that respect, first and foremost, with their on-field. Warner, as evidenced on Sunday, is thriving in every one of those aspect. Nick Bosa is the defensive player of the year, but Warner is the engine of the league’s best defense.


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