The 49ers scouting staff saw Charles Haley make one incredible play in pursuit of the football on a grainy game film. Walsh and his staff believed if a player was capable of such a play in a single instance, that he could be coached to do the same on a consistent basis. That was enough to warrant a 4th round selection of a player that went from obscurity to (barely) one step outside the Pro Football Hall of Fame by the time he retired.
Junior outside linebacker Steve Filer is nowhere near the Hall of Fame. He's not yet a collegiate starter, but he has shown flashes of athletic brilliance. Filer ranks among the most likely breakout defensive players of the 2010 season; one that just happens to currently run with the second string in the program's most talent-laden position.
Filer's flashes of greatness have been few, but the junior's shown a quick first step, closing speed around the edge and power to split double teams. He enters 2010 as the team's most experienced special teams performer – units from which Filer received invaluable full-speed seasoning as a young college player.
Filer's 2010 Season OutlookFiler emerged last August in training camp and appeared headed for significant contributions from scrimmage, especially after former head coach Charlie Weis estimated the hard-charging DE/OLB would be "a guy who could find his way on the field in Nickel (defensive package) as a regular; and if he does, he might be on the field for 75 percent of the plays."
But Filer finished with just 18 total tackles in 2009, a team-high 12 of which occurred on special teams. He fought through the frustration of limited September playing time to emerge as a key rotational pass-rusher in October, notching his first career sacks (a shared sack vs. USC and a solo take down vs. Washington State in which he forced a fumble two weeks later), but finished the season's final month with only intermittent action from scrimmage.
With two seasons of eligibility remaining, Filer enters his third summer camp (apparently) a tick behind starters Brian Smith and Darius Fleming in the team's crowded outside linebacker rotation. While no former Irish player is remembered exclusively for his standout performance in the program's annual Blue Gold Game, Filer's game-high tackle total (12, with two for lost yardage) was eye-opening from a scouting perspective, due largely to its variety:
- Diagnose and go: Filer ran down tailback Armando Allen on the sideline, limiting a swing pass to no gain.
- First step, followed by raw speed: The sight of the 6'4" 235-pound Filer bursting off the edge and again taking down Allen, this time for a 7-yard loss, offered what Irish fans hope will be a regular occurrence from the OLB crew next fall.
- Recognition, but lack of seasoning: Filer diagnosed a screen pass quickly but in his haste, over-pursued the patient Allen who cut back easily against the grain (only to be cleaned up by sophomore Manti Te'o).
Filer's limited 2009 film review showed most of his impact as a pass-rusher off the edge. His ability to play in space this spring surprised me, though the squad's new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco saw evidence of that skill set early in the spring session.
"Oh good, absolutely," Diaco answered when pressed specifically about the zone coverage skills of Filer (and Kerry Neal). "Those guys are what you're looking for. They're tall; they're long (limbed) they play with a ‘long lever' so when they grab you (they can initiate space); they're quick-twitch guys so they can defend in space, re-route wide receivers, break on the ball, be active on outside breaking routes.
"But they're also physical enough to attack and be ‘combat zone' players and push on tight end and offensive tackles."
After 23 career contests during which the bulk of his "combat zone" action occurred running under a kick or punt, Filer enters 2010 ready to make plays roughly two seconds after the ball is snapped.
"I love special teams," Filer noted last April. "That's where I got my start and where I played the last two years. And I'll always love it.
"It helps a lot to learn the speed of the game. You're running fast, you're breaking down, you're tackling. There are a lot of things that you do on special teams that you do on offense and defense, too."
Those attributes were on display for Filer during the defense's final stand vs. Navy last November as the undersized defensive end knifed through the line at the snap to drop Midshipmen fullback Vince Murray for a loss (his only carry for loss in the contest) with just over two minutes remaining. The defense forced the necessary punt; the Irish offense faltered, and Filer never notched another meaningful tackle as the season spiraled down the drain.
2010 is Filer's penultimate season in the program. Expect a breakout performance from one of the team's most complete and to date, underutilized athletes.
Filer's Best of 2009
- Washington: On the Huskies first drive of the 4th Quarter, Filer, in his first action from scrimmage in three weeks, makes stop on tailback Chris Polk for no gain from his right defensive end spot. Filer split Washington's left tackle and guard to make the play. He was then removed in favor on the Dime defensive package (and, I believe, for the duration of the contest.)
- USC: Filer was first inserted on the last drive of the 1st Quarter; then reappeared on the final drive of the first half. He responded with a sack of QB Matt Barkley (teaming with DT Ethan Johnson lined up to Filer's right) during which a Kapron Lewis-Moore inside stunt greatly contributed to the play, as Barkley was called for intentional grounding during the take down.
Filer showed excellent speed on the pass rush after initially shedding Trojans' left tackle Charles Brown, then bursting inside to take down Barkley.
- Washington State: Kapron Lewis-Moore, Darius Fleming, and Filer put together back-to-back-to-back tackles-for-loss/sacks to open the fourth period. Leading 33-7 with the Huskies facing 3rd and 23 from their own 17-yard line, QB Jeff Tuel was sacked for an 8-yard loss by a hustling Filer. Tuel had rolled right away from the pressure, but after sidestepping a tackler, Tuel was buried by a full-speed Filer, who forced a fumble on the hit (recovered by the Cougars). Sheer speed by Filer in pursuit...
- Navy: Trailing 21-14 in the 4th period, Filer exploded down and through the line of scrimmage to stop Midshipmen FB Vince Murray for a loss (the only instance in which the fullback was stopped behind the line over the course of the contest). The defense held, but a solid Navy punt pinned the Irish offense deep in its own territory and QB Jimmy Clausen was sacked for a safety four plays later.
Filer's Moments to Forget in 2009
- The season's first four weeks: Filer barely appeared from scrimmage vs. Nevada (garbage time), at Michigan, vs. Michigan State, and at Purdue.
- USC: One play after his sack (detailed above), Filer was shoved five yards out of the way by Trojans left tackle Charles Brown. With half of the Irish front seven also caved in, only a solid tackle by Gary Gray limited the fullback Stanley Havili's otherwise uninterrupted carry to a five-yard gain.
- Washington State: With the Irish holding a 26-point advantage, Filer was engulfed by a double-team block to allow tailback Desmond Tardy 10 yards to the outside. The play was notable as one example in which the offense used Filer's speed and lack of game seasoning against him.
- November: After emerging as a rotational player for four weeks in November (Filer was also involved in the game's final and decisive defensive series in the 20-16 win over Boston College), Filer made just one tackle from scrimmage (vs. Navy) over the season's final four contests.