The 49ers have not one, not two, but three good linebackers in the middle of their defense.
We know what All-Pro Fred Warner is capable of, same with third-year linebacker Dre Greenlaw who recently returned from the Injured List. The rising star amongst the group, though, is Azeez Al-Shaair, who had two takeaways in the 49ers 34-26 win over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at Levi's Stadium
Al-Shaair intercepted Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins for the first of two takeaways in the third quarter, giving the 49ers a scoring opportunity from the Minnesota 2-yard line.
Two drives later, Al-Shaair then jumped on a Dalvin Cook fumble forced by defensive tackle Kevin Givens, for his second takeaway of the quarter.
Coach Kyle Shanahan had high praise for the 24-year-old linebacker in a press conference with reporters Monday.
“Azeez has been ready for anything we've asked him to," Shanahan said. "And I think you guys can tell. He always runs around and plays like his hair is on fire and that he loves playing the football game, but that's not changing.
"But he's just getting more and more confident of where to be, what to anticipate and he's just playing at a real high level right now. And that's why he got his hand on the ball twice, one with the pick, which was an awesome job keying that quarterback. And then just being around after [DL] Kevin [Givens] got that strip. Azeez, he's been playing at a high level all year, whether he's inside or outside. I expect it to continue. We needed it to continue because it’s one of the reasons why we're playing pretty good right now.”
Al-Shaair joined KNBR's Murph & Mac Tuesday afternoon, where he broke down his huge interception and how he was able to identify the opportunity for a takeaway.
"Reading the quarterback, we made an adjustment at halftime to change up how we were going to play out coverage," Al-Shaair said. "Me and Fred [Warner] were talking about it at halftime, if that play came up again, that was going to be my play to make. So when I saw it coming out and the same formation I was just getting ready to ready the quarterback. Once I saw him open up that way, I opened up that way as well. Then when he threw the ball I honestly for a second didn't think he threw it. I was like 'ah crap, he did.' "
Returning the interception 25 yards, Al-Shaair helped set up an eventual touchdown from running back Elijah Mitchell on offense. He might have had an opportunity to score if he had better blocking from his teammates on defense.
"Obviously once I get the ball, nobody wants to block. Fred's getting thrown across the floor, Josh [Norman] is tacking me. My turbo button was broken at the time. I pressed my [R2 button on Playstation controller] and it wasn't working."
On the fumble recovery two drives later, Al-Shaair nearly didn't come up with it after 49ers safety Jimmie Ward tried to wrestle it away from him.
"I was trying to scoop it," Al-Shaair explained. "When I first started scooping, Jimmie [Ward] is right there. He's knocking me over and I'm like 'come on, man.' "
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Even with his teammates complicating things, Al-Shaair's two turnovers played a huge role in the 49ers' 20-point third quarter and eventual victory over the Vikings.
It appears that San Francisco has a three-headed monster at the linebacker position.