SANTA CLARA — In the 49ers' preseason opener, rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw continued to show why he was worthy of a fifth-round draft pick.
The team sat most starters, including linebackers Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander, on Saturday night against the Dallas Cowboys, and that led to Greenlaw playing 29 defensive and 14 special-team tackles. Even when he wasn't credited for a tackle, he regularly was in very close proximity to the play.
Kyle Shanahan was complimentary of the rookie’s instincts.
“Yeah, it’s showing up that way in camp, too,” the 49ers coach said after the game. ”He always seems to be around the ball in the run game and the pass game. From what I saw, he made a few plays out there, and I’m sure I’ll see a little more when I watch the tape, but seemed pretty encouraging how he played tonight.”
Greenlaw finished with five solo tackles, tied him with safety Marcel Harris for the team lead. Greenlaw’s enthusiasm is as apparent during practice as it was on the field during the game, but part of being a rookie is learning when and where to use it.
Early in the second quarter, Greenlaw was flagged for roughing the passer when the Cowboys were attempting to convert on fourth down. Dallas received a fresh set of downs, but on the next play, Greenlaw made up for his mistake by tackling running back Darius Jackson for a 4-yard loss.
With that tackle, Greenlaw could begin to make 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh a believer. During training camp practices, Greenlaw delivered the loudest hit of a team drill when he laid into fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
Saleh obviously didn't approve of that hit in practice, and explained what he wanted to see from the rookie.
“Protect the team,” Saleh said. “We’ll see what he does on Saturday. If he knocks down the Cowboy runners that way, then I’ll be a believer. In practice, the running backs aren’t always thinking that you’re going to come up there and just knock them down. He still has to climb that hurdle for me in terms of tackling and getting guys on the ground, showing that knockback.”
Saleh did speak highly of Greenlaw’s progress in learning the 49ers' defensive scheme. Prior to facing the Cowboys, he detailed how the rookie hasn't been limited to playing one linebacker role.
“Good learner,” Saleh said. “You’ll see him, he’s playing SAM, he’s playing WILL, so he’s going back and forth with regards to base and nickel. He’s doing a very good job understanding what his issues are within the scheme.
“Understanding the alignment part, that’s not completely clean, but it’s very close for a rookie. At this point in camp, you have your entire system that we can call anything at any time, and he’s got to be on it. Where in a game plan, it’s much more specific, so it would be easier for him to align and do all those things once the season starts. But, for him with what we’re asking him to do, I think he’s doing a really nice job from a learning aspect.”
It remains to be seen how much playing time Greenlaw will receive during the regular season, but it appears he's well on his way to being noticed by the 49ers' coaching staff.