SANTA CLARA — Fred Warner took the podium and let out a satisfied exhale.
“That ain’t half bad,” Warner said following the 49ers’ 42-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys before a packed house Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium.
Through four games, the 49ers defense had been good. Sometimes very good. What they hadn’t been yet is great. That box was checked in a big way with the rest of the league and the entire country watching on national television.
It was Warner, a reigning first-team All-Pro middle linebacker, having his signature performance of the season and one of the best of his career against a Cowboys team that will likely be in the postseason.
Warner did just about everything a defender can do, recording a sack, an interception, forcing a fumble and leading the 49ers with eight tackles. He defended both run and pass, and as usual, served as the vocal conscience of his unit.
If there was any question whether Warner was comparable to Patrick Willis, who played at or near a Hall of Fame level from 2007 through 2014, any doubt was erased Sunday night.
“He’s the best in the world,” 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa said. “It’s not close.”
With the 49ers leading 7-0 and the Cowboys backed up to their 5-yard line by a Mitch Wishnowsky punt, Warner stripped the ball from running back Tony Pollard. It laid tantalizingly on the sideline until defensive lineman Kevin Givens could recover it, and set the 49ers up at the Dallas 10.
And although Christian McCaffrey fumbled the ball back to the Cowboys at the 2, the 49ers defense forced a three-and-out punctuated by a sack of Dak Prescott by — who else? — Warner.
On the next play, the 49ers dialed up a flea flicker pass which Brock Purdy threw to George Kittle for a 38-yard touchdown, and it was 14-0.
Warner intercepted a Prescott pass in the fourth quarter and returned it 12 yards to the Dallas 26-yard line, which set up Jordan Mason’s 26-yard exclamation-point touchdown.
The interception and forced fumble were two of four 49ers’ takeaways — an area in which the 49ers had been lacking even if they were ranked third in total defense coming into the game. They had just five takeaways in their first four games.
“Yeah, this is just the standard,” cornerback Deommodore Lenoir said. “We’re always looking to get better. We had four turnovers today. Next week we’re looking for five.”
Dallas, which had counted all three of its wins as blowouts, finished with just 197 yards of total offense and 57 yards rushing. Prescott, who must have nightmares after being tortured by the 49ers defense in the playoffs the last two seasons, was 14-of-24 for 153 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. He was sacked three times.
It may have been a regular season game as opposed to the playoff losses, but it cut deep with Prescott.
“This may be the most humbling game I’ve ever been a part of,” Prescott said. “Felt good about the preparation. Felt good about everything, and they beat us in every aspect.”
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks conceded during the week the 49ers had to get better at taking the ball away, and told the media as much on Thursday.
“Our intent is there, I think eventually we’ll get those tips and overthrows, we’ll get those forced fumbles,” Wilks said. “We’ll be there.”
When the defense met on Saturday night, Wilks told his unit they could still be much better.
“He said, ‘You guys don’t know how good you truly can be,” Warner said. “We see the talent in this room and what our potential is, but it’s about doing it week and and week out. And to do it in this game, on this stage against a really good team, it really meant a lot.”
Free safety Tashaun Gipson, who had the first interception of Prescott, acknowledged, “We’ve been in kind of a drought. But we had some pressure, had some sacks, and that’s what great defenses do. You’ve got to take the ball away.”
A 12-year veteran on his sixth team, Gipson has a frank assessment of Warner in the NFL hierarchy.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) October 9, 2023
“Best in the business. There’s not a linebacker that’s close,” Gipson said. “I think he deserves to be in the conversation as the best defensive player in the NFL. He’s so invaluable what he can do. He can cover when you need him to, he can blitz when you need him to. He’s vicious in the run game. “
Gipson took it upon himself to tell Warner he was an “underrated” superstar.
“He didn’t like it. He took that personal. I was like, ‘Hey, that’s a compliment,’ but Fred, the kind of competitor he is, he went out there and did it on the big stage,” Gipson said. “It’s routine for him. He does it every day at practice.”
The 49ers are pretty self-motivated, but there had been a lot of talk coming in about how good the Dallas defense was. It could be construed as insulting to the 49ers, who were ranked No. 1 a year ago. Bosa said he hadn’t given it a single thought.
Warner, however, made it clear he’d heard the chatter.
“I guess the political answer would be we don’t hear that stuff,” Warner said. “Of course, I wanted us to be the top defense tonight, and I think we did that.”
As for the talk about Warner being a candidate for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award that went to Bosa last season, the six-year veteran has goals beyond the individual ones.
“I mean, if they put me in that conversation, great,” Warner said. “I know what I have to contribute to this team. I know what caliber of player I am. I don’t need anybody else’s recognition to tell me how great I am.
“I want to be the best person I can be, the best player I can be for my teammates and for our team. We know what we have ahead of us. All that other stuff takes care of itself when you’re doing the right things day in and day out.”