Key Defender Named 49ers Best Bounce-Back Candidate

Dre Greenlaw

Getty The 49ers can expect a bounce-back season from a key defensive player.

Defense rarely let the San Francisco 49ers down during the 2021 NFL season. The unit’s rankings were impressive, ninth in points allowed and third in yards surrendered.

More than the numbers, coordinator DeMeco Ryans’ group routinely came up big in clutch moments. There’s always room for improvement, though, and Pro Football Focus predicts a boost will come from the linebacker level.

Specifically, a standout athlete injured for much of last season is being tipped to bounce back. If he can, the Niners front seven shouldn’t skip a beat, despite some changes in personnel along the defensive line and in the secondary.

Linebacker Expected to Rebound in a Big Way

Dre Greenlaw appeared in just three games in 2021, but that hasn’t deterred Pro Football Focus and ESPN’s Nick Wagoner from naming him the 49ers’ best bounce-back candidate.

PFF noted how groin surgery wrecked Greenlaw’s regular season, but “his return in the playoffs, however, was crucial to the 49ers’ run in shutting down multiple top offenses.” The numbers bear out this assertion.

Greenlaw made five tackles, including one for loss, when the 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys 23-17 in the Wildcard Round. He was even more active against the Green Bay Packers a week later, making six tackles and recovering a fumble during a 13-10 win.

Those playoff appearances offered a teasing glimpse of what might have been for Greenlaw in 2021, had injury not struck. In another twist of cruel irony, he’d started last season in fine fettle, making a crucial pick-six against the Detroit Lions in Week 1:

At least Greenlaw’s postseason performances look like a natural precursor to a banner campaign.

Health will be the key, according to Wagnoer, writing as part of ESPN’s partnership with PFF: “The 49ers believe they have the best starting trio of linebackers in the league, but that depends on Greenlaw (and Azeez Al-Shaair) staying healthy. Greenlaw has settled into his usual spot early in camp, and the team is doing what it can to ease his workload by offering an occasional day off. This is a big year for him, as he is slated for unrestricted free agency after the season.”

Wagnoner’s assertion about the Niners rating their starting linebackers so highly is telling. The men behind the defensive line, particularly Greenlaw, are actually vital to the success of Ryans’ system.

Linebackers the Real Strength of 49ers Defense

It’s easy to credit the line as the true strength of the San Francisco defense, even after players like nose tackle D.J. Jones and rush end Arden Key left in free agency. There’s still room for stud playmakers Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, who will be joined by new arrivals, rookie Drake Jackson and former Indianapolis Colts pass-rusher Kemoko Turay.

Yet, as deep and talented as this line is, it’s the linebackers who really make Ryans’ defense tick. What separates the 49ers’ starters from other groups around the NFL is their ability to stay on the field for all three downs.

Both Greenlaw and middle ‘backer Fred Warner excel in coverage. Greenlaw’s range and speed have been assets against the pass since he entered the pros as a fifth-round pick in 2019.

Those attributes allowed 230-pound Greenlaw to make this signature play, broken down by ESPN’s Matt Bowen, against the Seattle Seahawks during his rookie year:

Recognition like this allows Greenlaw and Warner to stay on the field on third downs. Having to sub linebackers more often can open up a whole can of worms against clever and patient offenses.

Put more natural coverage players in the formation and a savvy opponent will run the ball or use screens to unleash massive offensive linemen against tiny defensive backs. Leave linebackers who lack range in space and any even remotely competent quarterbacks will immediately target the obvious coverage mismatches.

The 49ers don’t have that problem when Greenlaw is healthy and alongside Warner. It’s why the former is such a valuable player and one sure to produce at a high level if he stays healthy in 2022.

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