Fred Warner’s role as the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive quarterback is to exist as destructive offensive antimatter. Every type of matter in the universe has an antimatter equivalent. Once they make contact, annihilation ensues. Similar physics applies to the gridiron. Warner is a defensive particle that has the opposite effect as his more prolific offensive counterparts. Rather than having the ball in his hands, Warner wants it on the turf.
Warner’s green dot responsibilities designate him the signal caller of the league’s most formidable defense and for the past five years, he’s been as prolific at his duties negating offenses as any offensive counterpart not named Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady.
Warner is the Ray Lewis of this generation. In a mirror universe with more defensive-oriented priorities, Warner, 26, would be celebrated with the same acclaim as his peer Joey B. This writer would be finding the words to shower Warner with his proper recognition as he prepares to shepherd the 49ers to a second Super Bowl appearance in four years.
During Sunday’s Divisional Round 49ers win, Warner’s contributions were essential to the Cowboys’ postseason ejection. Warner’s coverage skills in the intermediate passing zones can go unnoticed because of the nature of his job, but he’s one of the top coverage linebackers in the league. The absence of positive offensive plays renders him invisible to the naked eye, but his impact on the second layer of the defense is the gear that keeps San Francisco’s defense perpetually troublemaking.
Nick Bosa gets glory through his physical proximity to quarterbacks, but middle linebackers don’t generate the tributes that pass rushers flying off the edge and pressuring precious passers do.
Tackles for loss and zone coverage deflections aren’t as sexy as sack artists, interceptions, and one-on-one man-to-man defense on the outside. San Francisco will make Bosa the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player this offseason. Warner currently ranks 20th behind a dozen other pass rushers and shutdown corners.
Niners still face uphill battle
All that said, the 49ers are at a significant disadvantage to the three prominent quarterbacks remaining in the postseason. Jalen Hurts, Joe Burrow, and Patrick Mahomes have attained collective glory in the form of Heismans, NFL MVPs, Super Bowl MVPs, and national championships. Brock Purdy is an outlier in their inverted structure. Kyle Shanahan’s quarterbacks have always been on the bottom of the totem pole. Just as his father, Mike, could swap out Hall of Fame running backs in his zone running scheme with undrafted free agents without missing a beat, San Francisco’s defensive quarterback has been more valuable than their offense’s.
But it was less than a year ago that Aaron Donald’s game-saving brutishness earned the Los Angeles Rams their first Super Bowl. Of the remaining teams left for the Conference Championship weekend, San Francisco is the only one with an Aron Donald-caliber talent. Their trifecta of All-Pros includes Warner, Bosa, and safety Talanoa Hufanga. Warner is the skeleton key though. His sideline-to-sideline agility is critical to the league’s top run defense and his vertical coverage skills when he drops back have unlocked an elite pass defense despite San Fran’s deficiencies at the position.
Warner’s the ideal hybrid Mike linebacker in the modern age of spread passing attacks, tasked with racing down the seam with No. 1 receivers or blowing up crossing routes. He did plenty of that against the Cowboys.
Wherever Warner roamed, negative plays developed. Warner’s presence erased Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ high-octane offense. His Elmer’s glue interception of a ball intended for CeeDee Lamb in the red zone took at least three Cowboys points off the board.
Warner’s interception was the beginning of a disastrous sequence before halftime that triggered the end of the Cowboys’ season. Purdy calmly dotted the Cowboys’ defense up, led the 49ers down the field, and swung the score by six points.
Warner’s stride-for-stride coverage of Lamb midway through the third quarter after feigning a blitz at the line of scrimmage and then racing 30 yards upfield was San Francisco’s runner-up momentum-shifting defensive play. Once again, Warner stopped Dallas’ momentum in its tracks in an unbelievable display of athleticism for a brolic 6-3 linebacker. Warner registered a team-high nine tackles, one tackle for loss, an interception, and disrupted several other plays.
The Eagles’ offensive line has dealt with the likes of Micah Parsons twice this season. Still, San Francisco has their own pass-rushing phenom and Warner provides equivalent value at the next level, making them the most foreboding defensive tag team in football. Hurts’ Eagles have run pretzels around the NFL en route to the league’s best record, but Warner’s defense will be their toughest crucible yet.
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