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Game Within The Game: Bengals Elite LBs Meet 49ers

LB Logan Wilson (left) and LB Germaine Pratt during practice on November 23, 2023 at the Kettering Health Practice Fields in Cincinnati, Ohio.
LB Logan Wilson (left) and LB Germaine Pratt during practice on November 23, 2023 at the Kettering Health Practice Fields in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Arguably the two best linebacker tandems in the NFL face off Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Santa Clara, Calif., when the red-hot Bengals' red zone defense plays a 49ers defense that has allowed the league's fewest red zone touchdowns over the last 25 games.

You get no argument from Bengals linebackers coach James Bettcher, a senior defensive assistant with the 49ers in 2021 before joining the Bengals last season.

"No doubter. I've been in both rooms," Bettcher says. "That's an elite linebacker room. This is an elite linebacker room."

In this corner is the Bengals' Logan Wilson, one of the NFL's big-play middle linebackers. His nine career interceptions since he was drafted in 2020 leads all backers in the decade and he just picked up his fifth career sack against Seattle.

In that corner is the 49ers' two-time All-Pro middle linebacker Fred Warner, who in his sixth season is viewed as the best there is as he works on six career interceptions with 8.5 sacks. Last year, Warner and Vikings linebacker Jordan Hicks were the only players with 120 tackles, 10 passes defensed, a sack, an interception, and forced fumble.

In this corner is "Playoff P," better known as Germaine Pratt, the Bengals' fifth-year backer who says he wakes up thinking about the ball with a combined 26 career touches of passes defensed (15), picks (four), forced fumbles (four) and fumble recoveries (three) to go with 399 tackles.

In that corner is Dre Greenlaw, a 2019 Senior Bowl teammate of Pratt before they both donned No. 57 as quicksilver wingmen. Greenlaw has 19 career touches and 378 tackles.

"We're proud of our guys. You can compliment these other teams and the great players they have, and at the same time, be very thankful that we have the guys that we have," says Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. "And I feel that about a lot of positions, Germaine and Logan and even the depth behind them, with all the guys that we have. We're very fortunate that we've got the group that we've got."

If the numbers are similar, Bettcher says so are the traits.

"All these guys are super smart, great instincts, love the game, prepare relentlessly," Bettcher says. "All four of these guys are great leaders. They're what the game is supposed to be about. Watch the tape. It speaks for itself. How tough and hard and physical they play. All four of these guys have opportunity for the ball because they understand where the ball has to go. They can play any down, play any spot. It's going to be pretty neat to watch all four guys on the field."

All four guys are fast, fast, and faster worthy of those rare three-down backers. On Sunday, you'll see four of them on the same field. When Bettcher arrived last season, he brought his 49ers tape and Wilson says they studied those techniques while trying to see what they could use in what are two different systems.

"What is similar to the guys in San Fran is they've been together in the same system. Four years together in the same system. That matters," Bettcher says. "They know where the ball is going to be, they have awareness, you know where the weakness is in the defensive call. You know where they have to attack the call. And you know where your own issues are."

Wilson and Pratt see plenty of Warner and Greenlaw on tape because they're playing a lot of the same teams this season. Pratt keeps his eye on Greenlaw because they play pretty much the same spot.

"He's fast, physical, he can do it all. He gets his hands on a lot of balls. He creates turnovers," says Pratt, who should know. "We watch how they do things. They're a dynamic duo. They had Patrick Willis and (NaVorro) Bowman. They always seem to have dominant linebackers over there."

The no-frills Wilson, who earned the no-nonsense nickname of "The Governor," during his stately career at Wyoming, was hurt when they played the 49ers two years ago and didn't play. You guessed it, he doesn't see this thing as a chance to show how good he is.

"I don't get into that comparison stuff," Wilson always seems to say. "I'm trying to do the best to elevate my game." 

But he's got high regard for Warner. 

"Every aspect of his game is at an elite level," Wilson says. "His tackling, his pursuit, he plays with high effort. Good technique. Really  good in coverage. Everything you expect of a linebacker." 

Bengals center Ted Karras is saying the same thing this week. He thinks this is the second time he's faced Warner. 

"The 49ers defense has a lot of success because they win a lot of individual matchups. Fred is right there in the middle. I have a very, very high opinion of him and his film just keeps getting better as I study him this week," Karras says. 

"Fred gets off a lot of blocks very quickly. We have to get a hat on a hat on him if we're going to have success in the run game. He's a big man, 6-3, 230, he can run, a very smart player. He's been at the top of the league for a long time and we're definitely accounting for him." 

If there's a comparison, it may be their mindsets. Bettcher says that's where it starts with Warner. After a Wednesday practice, he's hitting the heavy bag. On Thursday he'll stay and work on block protections. He's always working on something. Bettcher sees that same attention to the game from Wilson, not to mention Pratt. 

"Logan comes off the Seattle game, where his blocked protections on and off blocks is as good as I've ever seen him," Bettcher says. 

And there was his sack of Geno Smith. 

"He did a great job getting to the up-field shoulder of the quarterback and then countered it down because if you don't get to the up-field shoulder of the quarterback, he's not going to step up in the pocket," says Bettcher of a play right edge Trey Hendrickson beat his man flashing across his face.

"If those two don't rush in sync, those opportunities don't happen. A small, little detail thing." 

Which is exactly what they'll need Sunday against 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense that morphs into any monster he wants at will. Bettcher has got plenty of notes. 

"No. 1, you have to be aligned in good position on every down," Bettcher says. "You can't be off in your alignments because they are as good as anybody in the league because they take advantage of angles and that's what they want. So you've got to be in good leverage. 

"And when moving pieces happen, because they're going to move and motion on every snap, you still have to get to your next leverage alignment. It's not just pre-snap. It's during the play on jets (sweeps), motions, and action and you have to get to the correct alignment with your feet in the ground with your eyes right so you can go execute." 

Just another Sunday for a 2020s NFL linebacker who must live in space and breathe in the trenches.  But on this Sunday, it is two of the best rooms. 

"We've been rocking for four years," says Pratt of Playoff P and The Governor. "We've got to showcase it this Sunday how good we are. Really, any time you go out there you want to show you're one of the best in the game."

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