A tone-setter on the 49ers’ defense, Greenlaw’s aggressiveness and extreme physicality can often draw the ire of referees. However, he has taken no greater risk than the decision he made in last Saturday’s divisional round playoff win over the Green Bay Packers.
Greenlaw snagged the game-clinching interception, his second of the game, picking off a throw from Packers quarterback Jordan Love to complete a 24-21 comeback win for the top-seeded 49ers as they narrowly avoided a huge upset at the hands of seven-seeded Green Bay.
Yet Greenlaw provided the Niners with a scare in the act of clinching the game. Instead of going to ground to immediately put the victory on ice, Greenlaw surged upfield, attempting to evade defenders in an effort to score and risking a fumble that would have given the Packers another shot.
It was a decision that led his teammates on the sideline to en masse implore him to get down. He ultimately complied, and his run back did not prove costly, allowing Greenlaw to celebrate another huge moment in his career that pushed the 49ers a step closer to the Super Bowl as they set up an NFC Championship Game with the Detroit Lions.
“I think he’s glad that it ended the way it did and I don’t think he’ll ever make that mistake again,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said a day after the game. “We didn’t get on him too hard, but he could tell how big of a deal it was after.
“We’re very appreciative he made the play, but stuff can flip very fast and you can ruin some of the best plays ever if you give a team any more of a chance. The way that game was going, we didn’t need to give them any more chances. So, I think he learned his lesson. Hopefully we’ll never have to deal with that again.”
While the Niners will want him to be more careful in the future, the odds are more big plays are in Greenlaw’s future. He has developed a knack for delivering when the stakes are highest. As a rookie, he was crucial to the 49ers’ last run to the Super Bowl in the 2019 season, his last-second goal-line stop in the regular-season finale against the Seattle Seahawks securing the one seed in that campaign.
His instrumental display against the Packers carried an even greater significance, with Greenlaw emerging as a saviour in a game in which he and fellow linebacker Fred Warner played a crucial role in holding a Packers team that scored 48 points in their previous playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys in check.
Greenlaw’s performance was made all the more impressive by the fact he had been questionable during the week of practice with Achilles tendinitis, an issue that was still affecting him even after he sat out a meaningless regular-season finale.
His character in fighting through that injury and then making a game-changing impact earned him great praise from Shanahan, despite him Greenlaw fraying his head coach’s nerves with his curious decision to run back the decisive pick.
“Dre just being able to play today. He’s been battling here for these two weeks trying to get back and get healthy for the game,” Shanahan added.
“He inspires the heck out of all of us. The way he runs, the way he hits. For him to make those plays, catching the ball when they send both to him. He’s really trying.”
The 49ers shouldn’t require inspiration for their third successive appearance in the conference championship, but Greenlaw’s tenacity is sure to again be a driving force as they attempt to slow down a potent Lions offense, Detroit’s rise from league laughing stock to a true Super Bowl contender defined in large part by the grit instilled in them by head coach Dan Campbell.
Greenlaw embodies everything the 49ers want their defense to be, fast, physical and aggressive, his all-action playing style mirrored by that of his running mate Warner, an All-Pro widely regarded as the best linebacker in the NFL.
“They’re going to come out and be themselves every game, every minute of every down,” cornerback Deommodore Lenoir said exclusively when asked about their intensity. “Playing next to them motivates me as a person, as a player really just to bring that fire and that intensity to just uplift the whole defense.”
Warner is not only the vocal leader of the 49er defense, but he also serves as the eye in the sky, showing an innate ability to read defenses, make adjustments and put himself and others in the right place to take away throwing lanes for quarterbacks. With both Warner and Greenlaw each boasting a mix of awareness and athleticism few at their position can match, they are a duo that thrives at removing the middle of the field as an option for opposing passing games.
Speaking exclusively, defensive end Randy Gregory said of their versatility: “Having linebackers that can pretty much do everything, cover guys, blitz, makes everyone’s job on defense a lot easier and a lot more fun, a lot of different packages you can do.”
Drafting Warner and Greenlaw in successive years (2018 and 2019) continued the 49ers’ strong track record in unearthing top-tier talents at linebacker, the pair accepting the torch from San Francisco’s previous elite duo at the position, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, who patrolled the middle together for the Niners from 2010 to 2014.
Willis, a finalist for the Hall of Fame this year, could hardly be more impressed with how Warner and Greenlaw have carried the baton, believing they have taken what he and Bowman did to another level.
“The next generation that comes after you and after you,” he told talkSPORT. “It’s about taking what was there before you and making it your own and making it that much better. And I feel like Dre and Fred are doing that and they’re a joy to see so I’m rooting for them to go get it done this year.”
Greenlaw, though, doesn’t believe he and Warner have quite reached that level.
“It’s a great honour just to be able to play for the team that they [Willis and Bowman] played for and for people to see the comparison,” he said exclusively on Friday. “I know we got far away to go to reach the standard that they set, be the best in the world. We’re working every day for people to acknowledge that we’re a really great duo just like them. We’re not as great as them or nothing like that. It’s an unbelievable feeling, the gratitude for Fred really just for being a leader and helping me out, playing beside him and run on the field with him.”
Willis and Bowman were never quite able to get it done with the 49ers, losing in the Super Bowl to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2012 season before then suffering defeat in a classic NFC Championship Game with the Seattle Seahawks.
Greenlaw’s heroics have put the 49ers in a position where they are win away from a potential rematch with the Ravens. Regardless of who wins in the AFC Championship Game, the 49ers will face one of the two teams to beat them in a Super Bowl, with the Ravens set to go against the Kansas City Chiefs.
A victory over the Lions would, therefore, mean a matchup with either MVP-elect Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes, the man who broke 49ers hearts in the 2019 season with an epic fourth-quarter comeback in Super Bowl 54. Jackson has had success against the Niners as well, producing a superb display in a Ravens win over San Francisco on Christmas Day.
Before the 49ers can even think about that, they must get past a Lions team that has found a lot of joy attacking the middle of the field on offense this season.
Thankfully, the 49ers have Warner and Greenlaw, who after predicting he would get a second interception during an exchange with his linebacker coach Johnny Holland during the Packers game, has a good feeling more could be on the horizon.
“I feel like I’m due for another one too,” Greenlaw said in a press conference on Thursday.
After his divisional round heroics, who would dare tell him he’s wrong?