Ahmad Brooks had a surprise quote yesterday about Robert Saleh’s defense.
“I feel like Coach Saleh, the defensive coordinator, has kept things simple for us. We installed maybe about 10 defenses, and that’s it. And that’s what we’re going to be running throughout the season.”
Ten defenses. Out of the hundreds of different schemes, formations, and packages, the 49ers are sticking with ten defenses this year.
Football often looks to be a complicated sport, with 500-page playbooks, foreign terminology, and 22 people on a field all moving in an organized chaos. For players moving from high school to college and then to the professional level is faster and has a steeper learning curve. A coach can have wordy plays that cause confusion or players overthinking their particular assignment associated with the call.
I can imagine some defensive coaches coming up with an answer to every offensive scenario.
“If this guy goes here, you go here! If he slants, you drop! If he pretends to tie his shoes, you audible into a zone fire! We have an answer to everything!”
It’s an endless story of if-then situations that make the defense think instead of reacting. We may never know, but it’s probably one of a multitude of reasons the 49ers played such poor defense last season; they often looked confused rather than aggressive.
Maybe it’s why Saleh decided to break the defense down to its bare elements, rather than add layers of unneeded complexity.
The battle at the line of scrimmage will make or break this year's defense. Saleh certainly knows he does not need to draw up an avant–garde scheme. What Saleh does need is for the men up front to dominate the 5-7 yards of space each play, winning the battle for No Man’s Land more often than the opponent. An elementary slant weak/strong or looping the defensive tackle through the A-gap may prove to be useful with the athletes he has on the roster.
With a week into training camp, the 49ers have already suffered some injuries in the secondary. It’s still early – and many of these players will heal in time for Week 1 – but these injuries add more question marks to a secondary that that enters this season with uncertainty.
What makes up for deficiencies in the secondary is a dependable, aggressive pass rush, which the 49ers have if the coaching staff can harness it. They have the tools and talent to keep a constant pressure on the quarterback, forcing him to make poor decisions and rush throws leading to incomplete passes and interceptions. If the defensive line can get continued penetration, they can also shut down the run game. Both situations allow the secondary to drop back into coverage, rather than be relied upon to make open field tackles.
Saleh’s strategy of keeping things simple also allows for younger players to react naturally to what he sees, rather than overanalyze a formation, how the defense can counter a play or what audible comes next. A ‘see runner, hit runner’ mentality is going to pay off more than trying to run some wild cover 2 trap with the left cornerback and edge rusher running a convoluted stunt against an offense ready to attack.
I’ve said before that Saleh’s biggest challenge this season isn’t improving from last year’s defensive tire fire. He has a roster of raw talent and veterans hungry to bring the defense back to a fearsome unit. It’s a matter of Saleh finding the right line-up and combination of players, for the right moment or moments in a game, for the defense to be successful.