Each week, NBC Sports Bay Area 49ers insider Matt Maiocco will preview the upcoming matchup and key storylines heading into Sunday's game. For more takeaways and features from Maiocco, visit NBCSports.com.
The stumping for Russell Wilson as 2020 league MVP might have started earlier than any campaign in recorded history.
The Seattle Seahawks quarterback is one of the NFL's top players, for sure. But let's allow this thing to play out a little, OK?
The 49ers return to Seattle this weekend for the first time since their memorable Week 17 victory that delivered the NFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The 49ers defensive lineup on Sunday will bear little resemblance to the group on the field for the regular-season finale of last season – a game best-remembered for Dre Greenlaw's stop of Jacob Hollister at the goal line that delivered the 49ers a riveting 26-21 victory.
The 49ers face their biggest challenge of this season against Wilson and his outstanding pair of wide receivers, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.
But the Seattle offense will go up against its most formidable opponent, too.
Wilson will not see DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford or Richard Sherman when he does his pre-snap scan of the 49ers defense on Sunday. So a lot of things have changed.
But he will see No. 54.
There is no way for Wilson to avoid middle linebacker Fred Warner, who is loudly making a case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year without saying a word.
Warner provides everything the 49ers need. He is exceptional in pass coverage in the middle of the field. He has sideline-to-sideline tracking ability to make tackles in the run game.
Most important, perhaps, is the leadership Warner has supplied to a defense that sorely needed someone to step up after back-to-back inexplicable losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins.
Robert Saleh spent time with the Seattle Seahawks, where he coached five-time All-Pro inside linebacker Bobby Wagner. He already puts Warner in that same class. And that is high praise for Warner, a third-year player.
"They understand football," said Saleh, the 49ers' defensive coordinator. "They have such a great feel for rush and coverage and routes and concepts and all that stuff and where the quarterback wants to go with the football. That's what makes those two so special."
While the 49ers have experienced an alarming number of setbacks with injuries on defense, Warner and Saleh have been the constants.
As the 49ers marched through the NFC last year, Saleh emerged as a strong head-coaching candidate. This might rank as an even-more-impressive coaching job due to the amount of juggling and number of adjustments he has been forced to make.
The 49ers Week 8 game will say a lot about this team. This is the kind of game where the big-time players have to assert themselves.
Let's put Saleh in that category, too.
Saleh has implemented a lot of changes on the 49ers' defense to mix up coverages, integrate blitzes and a variety of new wrinkles to keep offenses guessing a little more than in the past. He is a big reason the 49ers production on defense has not dropped off significantly even as many significant players are no longer available.
Warner will have incredible responsibilities to enforce a no-fly zone over the middle of the field. Regardless of which running backs the Seahawks put on the field, Warner must be a sure-tackler to avoid third-and-short situations.
Most important, Warner has to be wary of Wilson's ability to break from the pocket and gain chunks of easy yards with his legs.
The 49ers have not faced anyone like Wilson this season.
But Wilson has not gone up against a combination like Saleh and Warner, either.