Niners LBs covet spotlight roles in Super Bowl LVIII

LAKE LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw can finish each other’s sentences because of the amount of time they’ve spent together. On Sunday, the 49ers’ linebacker tandem is considered crucial to helping San Francisco finish its mission in Super Bowl LVIII.

Warner, the second-highest paid off-ball linebacker in the NFL behind Roquan Smith of the Ravens, knows his role against the Kansas City Chiefs is hyper-critical. He’s the primary defender tasked with covering Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

Warner was named first-team All Pro in 2023, collecting 132 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a career-high four interceptions.

“You have to know where he’s at on every single play,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “I think the best part about Fred is that he has the physical ability. He can do everything. He’s tall. He’s fast. He can blitz. He can do whatever you want him to do. But you can tell how much he studies the film, and how he’s able to adjust his coverage based (on) what team he plays. I think you have to know where he’s at on every single play. If you don’t, he will make a play happen that will be negative for us but positive for them. And so, someone you definitely have to account for.”

NFL Next Gen Stats underscores the importance of the key matchup Sunday: Kelce led all NFL tight ends during the regular season with 393 receiving yards, when a linebacker was assigned in coverage. Warner gave up a 61.9 passer rating as the nearest defender in coverage, lowest among NFL linebackers. He also intercepted Mahomes in the Super Bowl LIV matchup with Kelce catching six passes for 43 yards and one touchdown.

Warner was a third-round pick in 2018. Greenlaw was a rookie in 2019, entering the league as a fifth-round pick.

Warner said the past two seasons Greenlaw has “made the leap” and playing at a Pro Bowl level. He is often identified by his physical nature which even Warner said “toes the line” on aggression.

Greenlaw credits his bond with Warner for his rise and their collective commitment in the offseason. He said he’s working harder and appreciating every moment with more focus now that he understands how difficult it is to get back to the Super Bowl.

“Training together in the offseason, it kind of starts there. We made a commitment to stay (in Santa Clara at the team facility) in the offseason, eat together,” Greenlaw said. “It’s a natural connection on the field, understanding what he’s thinking and then knowing what the offense is trying to do. You spend all this time together just to get that one win.”

Warner and Greenlaw grasp that the same applies to Kelce and Mahomes, who’ve been together since 2017.

“When you got great chemistry with somebody, you know where they’re at all the time,” Greenlaw said of the Chiefs’ duo.

Warner said the narrative feels obvious, perhaps even overstated, but he’s not putting too much thought into any “undercard” conversation in the NFL’s main event.

“I feel like that’s going to be the narrative throughout this week, going into the Super Bowl: ‘How are the linebackers going to stop Kelce and Mahomes?'” said Warner. “At the end of the day, the way I look at it, it’s going to take everybody. They are really good. I give them my respect. I’ve seen it on tape. I’ve seen it for a long time now from them doing it, and I’ve seen it in person in the biggest game.”

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Thursday that all of the team’s injured players were able to participate in practice in a limited capacity: tight end George Kittle, defensive tackle Arik Armstead, cornerback Ambry Thomas and linebacker Oren Burks.