Fred Warner leads Niners defense; Kenneth Walker III struggles: NFC West Stock Watch

One of the best players at his position, San Francisco 49ers All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner is one of the reasons his team has perhaps the best defense in the NFL right now.

Warner leads the 49ers with 67 combined tackles. San Francisco is No. 4 in the league in points allowed (18.1 points per game), No. 1 in total defense (280 yards per game), No. 1 in rushing defense (83 rushing yards per game) and tied for fourth in sacks (29). 

Warner’s effectiveness as a blitzer and pass defender is key to San Francisco’s aggressive defense. He blitzed a career-high 18% of the time in 2020. That number dropped to 8% last season. This season, Warner has blitzed 10% of the time, with six quarterback pressures and one sack, according to Next Gen Stats. 

“It’s all about being relentless and working together as a group on all of those pressures,” Warner told reporters on Sunday. “And it’s been working so far.” 

Warner is the straw that stirs the drink for the 49ers defensively, with his ability to erase windows as a pass defender in the middle of the field, pursue sideline to sideline in the running game and affect the pass rush as a blitzer. 

Warner finished with a team-high seven tackles, three pass breakups and a sack in the Niners’ 22-16 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. Per Pro Football Focus, Warner allowed two catches for 15 yards on four targets. 

According to Next Gen Stats, the 49ers did not allow a target in the intermediate, middle portion of the field against L.A.’s offense. 

Since Warner arrived in San Francisco in 2018, the 49ers have allowed the fewest attempts (134), completions (71) and receiving yards (1,330) in that portion of the field (10 to 19 air yards). 

Warner’s stingy play defensively leads this week’s NFC West Stock Watch. 

RISING

49ers LB Fred Warner: The BYU product’s 274 tackles since 2020 rank second only to Los Angeles Rams middle linebacker Bobby Wagner‘s 347.

Warner and his teammates are in Colorado Springs this week, practicing at the Air Force Academy in preparation for the high altitude when they face the Arizona Cardinals in Mexico City.

Cardinals CB Antonio Hamilton: He has battled through adversity after suffering gruesome burns to his feet in a kitchen fire back in August. Impressively, Hamilton returned to the field, earning a role on Arizona’s defense.

Starting in place of injured corner Byron Murphy Jr. last week, Hamilton had one of his best games as a pro in Arizona’s road win over the Rams, finishing with a career-high 12 tackles and two pass breakups. 

Cardinals QB Colt McCoy: The Texas product made his first start of the season, subbing for Kyler Murray, who was nursing a hamstring injury. And McCoy played efficient football for the Cardinals, finishing 26-of-37 for 238 yards, with a six-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green and no turnovers.

McCoy’s performance included an impressive 26-yard completion down the sideline to Rondale Moore on fourth down to put the game away.

It’s uncertain if McCoy or Murray will make the start against San Francisco in Mexico City. McCoy suffered a knee injury against the Rams but returned to the game.

FALLING

Rams QB John Wolford: Making his first start of the 2022 season in place of an injured Matthew Stafford (concussion), the Wake Forest product had an opportunity to spark L.A.’s anemic offense. But Wolford had an uneven performance against the Cardinals, finishing 24-of-36 for 212 yards, with a touchdown pass and an interception. He struggled to create big plays; his longest completion was a 25-yard pass to tight end Tyler Higbee

If Stafford is still unavailable this week, the Rams might consider going with third-team quarterback Bryce Perkins instead of Wolford against the New Orleans Saints

Rams WR Cooper Kupp: This one is more about what Kupp means to L.A.’s offense than his play on the field. Obviously, availability is important in the NFL. Kupp suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Cardinals, underwent surgery and was placed on injured reserve. He’ll be out at least four weeks, likely longer and perhaps for the season.

The Rams were already struggling on offense without Kupp, and now they lose last year’s triple crown winner who has accounted for nearly 40% of their offense this year.

Kupp should heal up fine. He made a successful return from ACL knee surgery during the 2018 season. But how will the Rams produce on offense without the team’s star receiver? That’s what Sean McVay will try to figure out this week. 

Seattle Seahawks RB Kenneth Walker III: The rookie running back uncharacteristically struggled in his team’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Germany. Walker finished with only 17 yards on 10 carries, as Tampa Bay’s defense did a good job of not letting him bounce outside for big gains.

It will be interesting to see if other teams use Tampa Bay’s blueprint to try and contain Walker down the backstretch of this season, along with seeing how he adjusts now that he’s a focal point of opponents’ defensive game plans each week. 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.


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