Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

49ers LB Azeez Al-Shaair continues to break out with big plays in win over Vikings

Nov 28, 2021 at 8:39 PM--

Injuries can sometimes lead to opportunities in the NFL, and when those opportunities arise, it's important for the players who get their chance to make the most of it.

One of the biggest examples of that this season for the San Francisco 49ers has been third-year linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, who has been shining recently in a starting role after taking over for the injured Dre Greenlaw.

Greenlaw has been injured for most of the season after suffering a groin injury against the Detroit Lions in Week 1. Al-Shaair has stepped in and been a standout at times, in particular during the 49ers' 34-26 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

Al-Shaair had eight tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in the game, which also saw Greenlaw's return from injury only for him to be forced to the sidelines once again. Al-Shaair's presence against the Vikings was particularly important considering the 49ers also had linebackers Fred Warner (hamstring) and Marcell Harris (head) leave the game due to injuries.

"Azeez did a really good job, obviously how he played, the interception, and playing the run well," 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa said after the win on Sunday. "You don't usually see Fred out of the game, so it's definitely a shock, but hopefully it's not too bad and we can get them back."

Both of Al-Shaair's takeaways against the Vikings led to points for the 49ers. The interception came early in the third quarter and was returned to the 49ers' 2-yard line, which set up a touchdown run by Elijah Mitchell to give the 49ers a 28-14 lead. The Vikings rallied to cut the lead to 31-26 late in the third quarter when Al-Shaair recovered a fumble forced by defensive tackle Kevin Givens at the Vikings' 9-yard line, setting up a field goal that stretched the lead to 34-26.

Those turnovers helped offset an early 14-7 deficit for the 49ers, which came in part due to a touchdown the Vikings scored off a first quarter interception by 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

"We had the turnover early and then our defense comes right back and they get two turnovers," tight end George Kittle said. "Shout to Azeez and our guys for stepping up. That's what killed us early on. We just had so many turnovers and our defense wasn't getting them. Now our defense is helping us out a little bit. And now that allowed us to get that win."

Al-Shaair's duties changed as well during the game as he had to take on Warner's playcalling role after Warner went out due to injury. He seemed ready to pick up where Warner left off thanks to the communication within the linebacker group.

"At the end of the day, those are like my guys," Al-Shaair said of Warner and Greenlaw Sunday. "I think our whole room is so close from top to bottom. So when you have both of them go out, obviously that's a huge hit and then you got Marcell and [LB] Demetrius [Flannigan-Fowles] come in, and I think that for us, we just, we just play off of each other and we just have each other's backs. It's 'you keep chugging and keep going.' Fred and Dre are right there on the sideline. We're all talking while communicating with the rest of the guys. You just see us all just play together, play for each other."

So what's been different for Al-Shaair this season? He told reporters Sunday it's been about being himself rather than trying to be someone he isn't. Al-Shaair, who joined the 49ers in 2019 as an undrafted free agent from Florida Atlantic, said he was attempting to emulate other players too closely early in his career but decided to take another approach this season.

"I really just trusted myself," Al-Shaair said. "Just being more comfortable with who I am as a player and not always trying to be like somebody else. I think early in my career, I was constantly like it's the right thing, obviously Fred Warner is one of the best linebackers in the game, if not the best, then you've got [Former 49ers LBs] Kwon Alexander and Malcolm Smith, who was a super bowl MVP. So I think as a rookie, like, oh man, I'd be like this guy. I'd be like that guy.

"At the end of the day, I'm not them. I can only be myself. So I had to really learn how to play off my own strengths and build up my weaknesses because they're different from the next player. So I think just really focused on that this past offseason. Just really like seeing, well what got me in the NFL in the first place? Playing the way I play and then just fine tuning those things and getting better."

The new approach has paid off significantly for both Al-Shaair and the 49ers. He's been one of the top players on defense and could be setting himself up for a nice payday when his contract runs out after the season. Until then, he'll continue to be an important piece of the puzzle at linebacker for this year's 49ers team.

"Oh, Azeez has been huge," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Sunday. "Just the plays he's made, Greenlaw, losing him after Week 1. After the first half, Azeez had to come in and play like a starter and he's done that before in the past, but he's definitely done it this year. I think he's been one of our better players. The energy he plays with, how he runs around, how he's prepared every week and getting his hands on those two balls at the end were great."

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