The Night Before: Saleh Versus Goliath
“One would assume that given the hype around this Sunday’s game between the 49ers & the Chiefs that I would write about the Quarterbacks in this game or even the Head Coaches but I’m not gonna do that. What I find most interesting about this upcoming game is 49ers Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh and the unenviable task of combating one of the most explosive offenses in the entire league lead by a Quarterback who is quickly becoming one of the stars in the league.
Saleh, who is just in his 19th game as DC gets to match wits with one of the most experienced and creative offensive masterminds in the league. Saleh was not someone that was on the fast track to becoming a DC when Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch hired him, hell they originally targeted him to be their LBs Coach, a position that Bradley wanted him to fill in LA but Saleh had greater aspirations so he lobbied for an interview for the then vacant DC position. They took a major risk on a neophyte, who while he had great mentors in Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley he had never called a defense before. He has had to learn on the fly and work through mistakes that any young coordinator has to endure.
Bradley, along with Vic Fangio, were reportedly the original top targets to be Kyle Shanahan’s DC but the 49ers were either turned down or, in the case of Fangio, was unavailable due to the Bears being unwilling to let him out of his deal. The idea made sense, go with a veteran defensive mind with a track record of success which would have allowed Kyle Shanahan to solely focus on the offensive side of the ball but alas they had to regroup and reassess the situation. The search eventually landed on Saleh, who by all accounts impressed the brain trust with his intelligence, his passion and his knowledge of the scheme. While I am only guessing I also believe that the situation the 49ers were in also played a factor in his hiring. This was (and still is) a rebuilding team that was in the midst of a massive roster upheaval. They could afford to work through Saleh’s inexperience.
2016 was viewed by many as the worst defensive season in the history of the franchise, ranking amongst the worst in all major statistical categories. Per Football Outsiders DVOA metric the 49ers ranked as the 28th ranked defense in the league and when it was broken down via the pass and the run, they were ranked 28th & 31st respectively. In his 1st season as DC the 49ers made a significant jump in terms of defending the run. Going from near dead last to 18th, which is huge given the amount of new faces on defense. The youth and inexperience on that side of the ball and a scheme change is a pretty significant improvement.
That trend has continued so far into the 2018 season. While they are far from being comparable to the elite run defensive units that the 49ers fielded during the Harbaugh era, this is a unit that prides itself on stopping the run. A positive that will allow the defense to continue to grow at a steady rate.
Another positive that Saleh can lean on is how he has incorporated so many young and inexperienced players into his scheme. Richard Sherman and Earl Mitchell are the only players on the defensive roster that have more than 4 seasons of actual experience in the league (I am not including Malcolm Smith, as he has yet to play a snap for the team). To have to work with so much youth is a tremendous undertaking for any coach regardless of experience or tenure, and yet Saleh has never seemed phased by the situation he is in.
As is the fact that he is working with a short deck because of the phase of the rebuild they are in. They have yet to add that star EDGE pass rusher that every team craves (well...except for the Raiders apparently). Through bad luck in terms of draft positioning and in terms of available free agents they haven’t been able to find the guy who can effect the QB. Until they find “The Guy” Saleh will have to adjust and will have to find creative ways to pressure and speed up the QB.
Fred Warner & DJ Jones have been two early standouts on defense and are a testament to the work that Saleh and his staff have put in. Warner was the star of week 1 amongst the 2018 rookie class and did a fantastic job of taking to the MIKE LB position, a position he had never played in his time playing football. Jones, who showed some flashes during the 2017 preseason did very little during the 2nd half of the season came into training camp a brand new man and his play on the field shows as much. The team has steadily increased his workload to the point where it shouldn’t be a surprise if he overtakes Earl Mitchell as the teams primary base Nose Tackle. Warner and Jones join youngsters like Ahkello Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert as player who have been called upon to contribute earlier than their draft position seem to indicate. The team have done a really good job of developing mid to later round picks who have been able to contribute early.
Saleh will have the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong on Sunday. If he is able to call a game that limits and matches wits with what many believe is the best offense in the league.
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