As Fred Warner lined up the defense before the final play of his first half of real NFL football against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1, he heard San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh in his ear calling out the formation.
It was a prevent look, aimed at thwarting a Hail Mary.
“I mis-heard what he was trying to say, and I called a blitz on accident,” Warner said on Thursday. It happened to work. DeForest Buckner sacked Kirk Cousins for a loss of nine yards.
“It’s one of those, ‘No, no, no, yes, yes, yes’ type of deals,” Warner said.
To be sure, the 49ers waived linebacker Reuben Foster as much for his “incomprehensible” lack of judgement, as described by head coach Kyle Shanahan, as they did for the repeated accusations of sexual violence. That’s why, although Foster had the green dot on his helmet at times as a rookie, Warner was tapped from his first day at the facility as the franchise’s MIKE linebacker of the future, even when he’d never played inside before.
He’s since become the most consistent performer in a 49ers defense that lacks much consistency beyond himself and Richard Sherman. It’s why he could play a big role on Sunday as San Francisco tries to spoil the Seattle Seahawks’ playoff ambitions.
“He’s one of the smartest interviews I’ve ever had,” said Saleh, referencing Warner’s interview before the NFL Draft Combine. “He can take in information better than anyone I’ve been around.”
Foster was more of a physical being, a blunt instrument. As a rookie, he was second on the team in tackles despite missing six games. With hamstring and shoulder issues this season, he was much less of a factor, even taking into account that he was suspended the first two games. Warner now leads the 49ers defense in snaps with 722 – 149 more than any other San Francisco defender — and has Saleh’s implicit trust.
“He’s up there with [former NFL LB] Paul Posluszny to me, and Paul Posluszny was darn-near a rocket scientist,” Saleh said this week. “When you look at Reuben, Reuben’s personality, he wants to run, hit and hurt. That’s his personality, so just let him go do that. Not that he wasn’t capable of playing the MIKE, because he’s very, very capable. He’s very intelligent, very smart. But, when it came to Fred, just his intelligence and his IQ is off the charts.”
More often than not, Warner can be found watching film on his iPad during the periods the locker room has been open to the media this season, his top-knot hair hanging over his forehead as he studies.
“Even though everyone’s responsible for their own alignments and getting lined up … he’s the trump card and his voice has to be the loudest to get people lined up, and he’s got to do it with great conviction,” Saleh said. “You can’t have great conviction unless you know what you’re doing. So, that’s what makes him special.”
Warner, for his part, said this week that he can hardly remember what he had for breakfast. What he’s done on the field, though, has far outpaced his status as a third-round pick out of BYU.
Smith, who knows something of stout defenses, teaming with Richard Sherman during the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom heyday. Smith was in his second season when Seattle added second-round pick Bobby Wagner to the mix. He’s since earned four Pro Bowl invites and been named first-team All-Pro three times.
“I played with Bobby as a rookie, and he got a lot of play time, but the coaches were kind of easing him into things, especially early,” Smith said. “Fred’s been full-go since Day One.”
In that Week 1 game, he scored an 88.7 overall grade across 71 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, with two pressures, five defensive stops, a forced fumble and just 19 yards allowed from five targets in coverage.
He slumped, as rookies do, over the next six games, failing to surpass a 65.0 game rating in each of those weeks. Over the last five weeks, though, he’s third among 55 off-ball linebackers with at least 150 defensive snaps in overall grade (85.1), and first in coverage grade (88.6).
Sherman has seen what Wilson is capable of when he starts playing, as he called it, “backyard football.”
“I’ve also seen him throw five picks in a game, so you see what he’s capable of on both sides,” Sherman said this week.
While Wilson’s improvisational style could be cause for worry with a first-year MIKE linebacker — especially one in the middle of a defense that ranks last in the NFL with five total takeaways — Warner has proven himself a quick study in coverage.
In the last five weeks, Warner has allowed 95 yards in coverage across 136 defensive snaps and 18 targets.
He ranked ninth in yards allowed per target (5.28) and paced the 56 off-ball linebackers with 75-plus coverage snaps in that span for incompletion percentage (22.2 percent). He also didn’t allow a single touchdown, and missed only one tackle in coverage over the four games in that span.
“If teams are willing to go at him, he wants to be ready,” Smith said.
Before each game, Warner picks out two plays for each personnel grouping that he can check into should communication with Saleh get cut off, a library he’s continually updating for each situation.
“We strain the daylights out of him in terms of recognizing offense, recognizing indicators, recognizing receiver splits, to step back and recognize the formation,” Saleh said. “What the MIKE says we play no matter what, even if he’s wrong. Knock on wood, he’s been getting so much better as the year goes and it’s so much smoother.”
Sherman — who played seven years in Seattle, and has been the focus of much of the coverage headed into Sunday’s contest —noted that the Seahawks are running much more under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The plays are the same that Sherman remembers, he said, but they’re running in a wider range of situations.
Last season, Seattle ran the ball 40.62 percent of the time. That’s jumped up to 50.58 percent this season, the largest such jump in the NFL.
Both Jacksonville and Atlanta have shown comparable drastic shifts, but in the opposite direction: The Falcons from 43.86 percent in 2017 to 33.05 percent in 2018, and the Jaguars dropping from 49.49 percent to 40.63 percent.
Though Warner ranks just 24th in run-defense grade (63.3) according to Pro Football Focus, he ranks third among qualifiers in run-stop percentage at 10.7 percent.
“When you talk about the MIKE linebacker and having presence in front of the huddle, he’s staring at a bunch of veterans,” Saleh said. “For them to have trust and belief in what is coming out of his mouth as truth, that’s more important than anything. Because of what he’s been able to do, his study habits and his work habits, he’s got full trust of the huddle and because of it those guys can trust that their play will be right.”
Even if it’s not one Saleh calls.
“He’s been doing that all year, taking command,” Smith said. “We go however he goes. If he decides to do something, we go with it. There’s no back-and-forth, there’s no trying to override him. We’ve been relying on it.”