The San Francisco 49ers have a long history of top tier defenses. Players from long-ago such as Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, and Deion Sanders have been joined by the likes of recent heroes Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis as part of some of the best and most storied defenses in NFL history.
The 49ers are currently trying to rebuild the defense into one that belongs with the greats of the franchise’s past, and have made two big steps in the right direction: adding impact players like DeForest Buckner and Reuben Foster, and bringing in Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh. Let’s take a look at what Saleh brings to the team and how he’s done this year.
Robert Saleh began his coaching career in 2002, spending a total of four years as a Defensive Assistant at Michigan State University, Central Michigan University and the University of Georgia. Saleh joined the Houston Texans in 2005 as an intern for the defensive staff before being hired as a Defensive Quality Control Coach the following year. It was during this time in Houston that Saleh and Kyle Shanahan began their working relationship. In 2009 he was promoted to Assistant Linebackers Coach for the Texans. He spent two years in that role until 2011 when he was named a Defensive Quality Control Coach for the Seattle Seahawks, where he was part of the coaching staff that beat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII in 2013. The next year he joined the Jacksonville Jaguars as Linebackers Coach, where he served for three years before joining the San Francisco 49ers as Defensive Coordinator in 2017.
The two biggest qualities that Saleh brought to the 49ers this year are a simplified scheme that allows the younger players to react faster and to make plays, as well as his drive as a coach.
It became clear as early as training camp that Saleh had an energy to him that was infectious. He helped create a mindset amongst the defensive players, “All Gas, No Brakes”. This became a rallying cry amongst the players and helped them develop the swagger and confidence that players like Justin Smith had.
Saleh’s defensive scheme, the 4-3 Under, has suited the team well. It allows the players to become comfortable enough to learn it quickly and be able to go out and “just play”. For a young defense that is learning a completely new scheme, this is the best possible outcome. As fans, we saw the opposite under former Defensive Coordinators Eric Mangini and Jim O’Neil. The players never quite seemed to understand their scheme, and to be honest it never seemed like they understood them either. Saleh turned that around, creating a run defense that went from worst in 2016 to 7th this season.
The biggest knock against Saleh this season would likely be playing certain players out of position. Given the state of the roster this year, it’s understandable that he would have to do this. When you have only so many playmakers on the team, you need to try and get all of them on the field at once. This was the case when strong safety Eric Reid was asked to play weak-side linebacker after NaVorro Bowman was cut from the team, and also when DT Arik Armstead was asked to work on his body composition and play this year as a “LEO” Edge Rusher. While the Armstead move was perplexing, the 49ers just don’t have a traditional LEO rusher right now. Whether it’s in the draft or free agency, that position will be high on GM John Lynch’s list and Armstead can move back to a more suitable spot within the defensive line.
Should he be back?
With a history of duds like Mangini and O’Neil at DC, how do Shanahan and the rest of the organization feel about Saleh and will he be brought back?
Thankfully, that’s already been answered in Shanahan’s weekly interview with Matt Maiocco:
“Yeah, there’s no doubt about that. Robert has been great. I think he’s gotten better throughout the year, and I think he’ll be even better next year. Robert has a great future ahead of him, and I feel very fortunate that he’s coordinator for the Niners.”
The idea of Robert Saleh with a year’s worth of experience and ideas under his belt should be very exciting to 49ers fans. Saleh is the type to learn from his mistakes and figuring out new and innovative ways of doing what he wants the team to do, a trait shared by Shanahan. Having a year under the players belts will also make it easier for them to focus on newer concepts and will make them that much better in 2018.