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Kwon Alexander Breakdown: A Welcome Addition to the 49ers’ Defense

Bret Rumbeck
Mar 24, 2019 at 1:21 PM


Sometimes it's hard to tell when fan anger reaches its zenith, but it's a dead heat between two situations. The first is after a bad San Francisco 49ers' loss. The second begins as a slow, building wave in late December and crashes down with rage and violence immediately after free agency opens.

In the age of the internet, anyone with a dial-up modem is now qualified to be a pro football general manager or a coordinator. I'm just as guilty as the next fan for being overly critical of specific plays, players and team transactions.

Since Christmas, 49er fans have been sharing loud opinions on who the team should sign once free agency officially opened.

We all found ourselves in different camps supporting different star players, (read: Odell Beckham, Junior, Earl Thomas, C.J. Mosley) but we all agreed general manager John Lynch needed to make a splash signing on the first day of free agency.

Naturally, Lynch surprised nearly everyone and signed five-year linebacker Kwon Alexander to a four-year contract worth $54 million. It made him one of the highest paid linebackers in professional football.

Response ranged from confused to unenthusiastic, with the occasional angry fan in the mix to make the Twitter timeline interesting.

I wanted the 49ers to bring Mosley to the Bay, but after watching tape on Alexander, I'm pleased with the acquisition and look forward to what he brings to the locker room and the huddle.

Alexander's game stats and performance are a bit of a mixed bag and range from fantastic to far below average.

During the 2017 season, Pro Football Focus awarded him a career-high game grade of 93.8. In this performance, Alexander tallied one tackle, one sack, and one interception.

Just a few weeks later, Alexander earned a season-low 41.0 grade against New Orleans. He had five tackles, two assists, three-run stops, and a quarterback hit.

Alexander is a high-octane linebacker, and he showed what he can do during the opening weekend of the 2016 season.

Against the Atlanta Falcons and Kyle Shanahan's offense, Alexander racked up a career-high 15 tackles, including two for a loss and nine stops. He also added a sack to complement his afternoon.

Here is a short breakdown of Alexander's play against Atlanta.

1st Quarter – 1st and 10 at the ATL 19 (14:55)

Atlanta's opening play was a standard Shanahan inside zone run. The center and left guard execute a duo block on the nose tackle who's playing in a 1-technique. Atlanta's left guard had a Tampa Bay defender outside him and worked to push the opponent to the right.

The left tackle was uncovered, so he should have moved to the second level to block Alexander. However, I wonder if there was confusion on the block call from the tight end. The tackle and tight end tried to execute a 'Trey' block, but it wasn't necessary.

The error allowed Alexander to make a stop on the play.

Once Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman took the handoff, it appeared as if he had a small crease in between the left guard and tackle. Had the tackle executed the block correctly, Freeman could have cut forward to 'bang' through the hole.

However, the defensive tackle fell into the gap, forcing Freeman to 'bend' back inside.

Alexander mirrored Freeman at each step, which allowed him to find the right spot on the field to make a stop. It also helped that he went unblocked. Once he read that Freeman was bending back inside, it was an easy adjustment for Alexander to move right and take down the ball carrier.

1st Quarter – 2nd and 10 at the ATL 36 (5:30)

One of my favorite comments from a Webzone reader was learning that Shanahan had plays newer than 1985. Well, here's Shanahan using a lead or 'back on backer' play, which is probably as old as football itself.

Lead plays require a fearless fullback who can clear a remorseless linebacker from the running lane. It also helps if the linebacker bites on the line or backfield movement, which he did in this instance.

This was the moment running back Tevin Coleman took the handoff from Ryan. Atlanta blocked the play well up front, and the line movement took both linebackers well out of the play.

What should have been a big gain for Atlanta turned into a fantastic play from Alexander. His speed and agility allowed him to get back into the lane and avoid the lead block from the fullback.

Alexander regained his feet and shot back to the right. Instead of a 15-yard gain, Alexander's tackle only let Coleman gain four yards.

1st Quarter – 1st and 15 at the TAM 18 (2:31)

Shanahan dialed up a shovel pass to Freeman, with a trap block to throw a bit of confusion in the play. The offensive line went to the left with the trapping guard pulling around to the right.

To add more confusion, Ryan faked the toss to the right and flipped the ball forward to the back cutting in front of him.

The line action combined with the fake created a large hole in the defensive line. The shot above was just as Freeman gained control of the shovel pass. Tampa Bay, including Alexander, were all out of position.

Alexander forgot a fundamental rule of playing linebacker: always read the guards. Linebackers who peek in the backfield often find themselves headed in the wrong direction or overshooting the gap by five yards.

Atlanta should have scored on the play; however, guard Andy Levitre had a rough game and this shovel pass summed up his afternoon.

Guards make money for executing one-on-one blocks, especially on linebackers who are out of position.

Levitre, somehow, slipped off of Alexander allowing him to loop around and ankle tackle Freeman.

The 49ers need defensive players who can quickly turn their mistakes, and those of the opponent, into tackles. Alexander will be a breath of fresh air come September.

2nd Quarter – 1st and 10 at the ATL 39 (9:10)

Atlanta ran a screenplay to the right, opposite of where Alexander aligned.

Alexander was able to change direction, weave through the offense and cover 9.3 yards to make a critical tackle.

Current 49er linebacker Fred Warner probably can cover sideline-to-sideline. Indeed, he had to make up for Malcolm Smith's mistakes.

Alexander's ability to cover the entire field must have been one of the selling points for Lynch.

3rd Quarter – 1st and 10 at the TAM 25 (2:08)

Bruce Lee once said that he didn't fear a man who knows 10,000 kicks but did fear a man who's practiced one kick 10,000 times.

For a time, an athletic football player can rely on sheer ability to make up for deficiencies in overall skill. But, raw talent doesn't last, and most players do not age like a fine red wine.

Sound and sharp fundamentals keep good athletes on top of their games.

Think back to your high school practice when the linebacker coach tossed a few tackling dummies on the ground to mimic gaps in an offensive line. After choosing a victim running back, the coach sent him to the left, instructing him to run in between the left guard and left tackle.

The linebacker then had to read the ball carrier and react once he saw the back cut toward the line of scrimmage.

The tackle Alexander made here was a live version of the bag drill; it was textbook, honed through constant practice and sticking to the most elementary of drills.

The 49ers need more fundamentally sound players on defense, and Alexander will be an excellent complement to Fred Warner's already top-notch play.

Like you, I'm a 49er fan before anything else. And, like you, I had my wish list of free agents I wanted the team to sign. Alexander wasn't on the list.

But, we're not in the front office, which means we should give a small bit of deference to Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan about who they felt could make the most significant impact on the field and in the locker room.

I'm looking forward to seeing what Alexander brings to the 49ers' defense this fall.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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