It’s hard to predict what someone is going to do in a situation that they have never been in before. Robert Saleh is entering his second year as a defensive coordinator at any level. He cut his teeth in the NFL as a defensive quality control coach and then as a linebackers coach through stints with the Texans, Seahawks, and Jaguars. He was never a coordinator at any level before the 49ers hired him in 2017, and played four years of tight end in college, so really, there is very little history with Saleh and defensive play calling.
We all know that he learned the 4-3 single high safety defense from its creators in Seattle and Jacksonville, but last year he explained that it would be similar with his own nuances. Some of those nuances seemed to be the he was willing to move players around as needed to fit specific parameters of the scheme. Part of that was a coach trying to play with 11 defenders who were maybe not the 11 defenders he specifically wanted on the field.
One defender he has seemed very high on his DeForest Buckner. Buckner had the most quarterback hits of any defensive interior lineman in the NFL, but that translated to only three sacks. Part of the problem is Saleh that did not have the three starting cornerbacks he wanted, Dontae Johnson is not a press corner by any means, much less a starting quality cornerback. This offseason they were able to sign Richard Sherman, the elite press corner in the NFL. With Johnson leaving to Seattle (good luck, Seahawks fans) and Ahkello Witherspoon, K'waun Williams, and Jimmie Ward learning from the lead Jedi Knight, Saleh has to be expecting some of those quarterback hits and pressures to turn into sacks.
Saleh preaches “extreme violence” in his defensive configuration, and players like Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert, Reuben Foster, and Fred Warner speak in hard hits and forced fumbles. Saleh’s play calling saw the Forty-Niners’ defensive line up primarily in a 4-3-under defensive scheme with a shift to a 4-2-5 defensive formation (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB). They also played a ton of Cover 3 compared to Cover 1 or Cover 2 (man or zone, respectively). I would expect that with the additions to the secondary and the quiet edge-rush additions (Cassius Marsh and Jeremiah Attaochu along with the development of Solomon Thomas), we will see more man press called for our cornerbacks.
It seemed like Saleh did not blitz the opposing quarterback much on first and second downs, then on third downs he would send a linebacker or a defensive back (Tartt taking down Paxton Lynch anyone?). In interviews throughout last year, Saleh lamented about the defense’s inability to get off the field on third downs, and this somewhat predictable play calling along with a lack of the four-man rush to get to the quarterback could be to blame. Improving the pass rush through better coverage and faster players seems to be the game plan considering they didn’t make any splash signing or draft picks in the pass rush positions.
With three recent top end first round draft picks along the front four along with the additions of Marsh and Attaochu, who will be expected to rotate in the LEO position, and the addition of Warner rotating or even possibly starting at the “Will” position, one could see how he would have some confidence in getting to the quarterback more often this year. In order for the Forty-Niners to reach their goal of a Super Bowl, they must improve their pass defense.
One aspect that you can’t deny there was improvement was in the run defense. The defense went from allowing 160 yards a game in 2016, the year before Saleh arrived, to 116 yards per game last year, being badly burned only by a pumped Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley . The points per game also went down from 30 points per game to 23.9, which is kind of like retaking an algebra test that you scored a 54% on and scoring a 68%. Considering the offense averaged 20 points a game though, the defense played well enough to keep the team in games, but not with them.
Saleh’s play calling should grow this year, along with his roster of chosen players instead of ones that he inherited. Don’t expect a defensive version of Greg Roman’s run, run, pass that we sometimes saw last year with his base, base, blitz play calling. Saleh appears smart and dedicated to his craft, and at only 39 years old, he could continue to develop his own nuances of this scheme over the next ten years. One thing that we can always expect while he is our defensive coordinator is violence at the point of attack. He believes in keeping the play in front of you and then killing the check down receiver.
Along with Saleh’s play calling innovation improving, the defense will improve. With Tartt, Colbert, Sherman, Witherspoon, Ward, and Williams (along with any of the rookies who show they are worthy) the defense has the speed and violence to do exactly what Saleh wants. Big defensive lineman to fill gaps in the run game and a talented linebacking core (I still think we should add Mychal Kendricks as I’ve been saying even before he was cut by the Eagles) will allow players like Marsh, Thomas, and Attaochu to get the quarterback and improve upon that last place sack total from a year ago. They have the speed to chase down the Russell Wilson and Cam Newtons of the league, and the defensive backfield to help give the talented DL to collapse the pocket against the Jared Goff and Sam Bradfords of the league.
We will see Saleh defense execute speed and violence this year. NFL quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers beware, Saleh’s Padawans have evolved into Apprentices looking to knock you out.
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