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Is Chris Kiffin the future of the 49ers Defense?
The 2018 San Francisco 49ers entered the season driving a long combination vehicle filled with kegs of Kool-Aid. Once parked at 49er headquarters, the country and Vegas oddsmakers were happy to tap the shiny silver barrels and guzzle down the saccharine liquid.
The 49ers’ hype truck had run me over before, so I hesitated to join the masses in a large social chug of grape-flavored potential. But the first few nips of Kool-Aid felt right and tickled my sluggish soul that yearned for a successful season.
“A 9-7 season is well-within the cards,” I said to my fellow Faithful as I wiped the artificial grape flavor from my upper lip. “10-6 is an achievable stretch goal! The shadows on the stadium are all pointing toward the team store. Let's take our Visa cards and purchase team propaganda!"
I lean more toward watching a quarterback operate an offense, but I was equally as excited to watch defensive coordinator Robert Saleh manage a defense free of injury and chock-full of first-round talent.
Edge rusher? Forget it. The 49ers’ were going to scrap together stops, turnovers and wins with the warriors on the final roster. The Kool-Aid dulled my senses, but I enjoyed the numb feeling.
By Week 5, after torn knee ligaments and a roster with the depth of the Platte River, we knew the sweet taste of hype was a masked delivery system for delayed rat poison. The 49ers’ defense looked inept and played with the softness of a velvet glove. A defensive line made up of first-round choices struggled to generate a pass rush, and the secondary couldn’t execute elementary coverages.
By the time the Week 8 rematch against the Arizona Cardinals rolled around, my small intestine would churn around and unravel down my femur each time I’d watch the defense trot onto the field.
Then, on the defense’s first series, we were treated to a surprise.
On the third play, Saleh called a blitz that sent safety Jimmie Ward and linebacker Reuben Foster through the A-gap. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead, lined up at nose tackle, moved to his right to draw the center over just enough to make space for Ward and Foster.
Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen had to make a quick throw to a receiver in the left flat, and edge defender Cassius Marsh made the stop for a one-yard loss.
The 49ers had forced teams to three-and-outs before, but this felt and looked a bit different. Saleh blitzed on the third play of the game.
Throughout the Week 8 match-up, Saleh mixed up his fronts, coverages, and blitzes to try and shut down the Cardinals. A tackle-end exchange on Arizona’s second offensive possession forced Rosen ground the ball in the end zone, resulting in a rare safety.
The 49ers’ defense generated an interception on another tackle-end exchange with Foster and linebacker Fred Warner creeping the A-gaps before the snap.
Saleh even called a corner blitz, allowing defensive back Richard Sherman to notch his first sack since 2012.
I know the 49ers lost to the Cardinals due to a late defensive breakdown and an offense that refused to move the football. But for a few quarters, the defense looked nasty and formidable.
The aggressive attitude was lost on most people, as the questions surrounding Saleh’s future with the 49ers grew from a soft rustle of fall leaves to the roar of a Saturn V rocket.
Then, in the nick of time, the Oakland Raiders made the short bus ride down 880 South to visit the 49ers last Thursday. Of course, the Raiders are standing tall as king of the flaming dung heap, but don’t let that achievement overshadow the 49ers’ victory and Saleh’s defensive game plan.
The defensemen who suited up last week were missing two key players: Foster and safety Jaquiski Tartt. Saleh crafted a plan that held the Raiders’ offense to 242 net yards, three points and sacked quarterback Derek Carr seven times.
You’ve probably read a few articles discussing Saleh using elements of Chris Kiffin’s defense in the last few games. Kiffin, as you know, is the 49ers’ pass rush specialist.
I have no insight into this theory, but I’ve played enough football to know that sometimes when the end is near, coaches finally start using other ideas and suggestions to save face.
Football is a game of theft; coaches steal concepts, alter the idea to fit the scheme, and claim it as brand new. I’m certain Saleh wanted Kiffin’s pass rush ideas for his playbook, but Saleh tends to call a conservative game. He’d rather rush four and drop seven into coverage than send six men and try and cover the soft spots with five.
Seven tough games were enough, and Saleh had nothing to lose. His defense was decimated with injuries, and some of those men starting wouldn’t usually be on another NFL roster. With nothing to lose, Saleh finally took his foot off the brake and floored the gas pedal.
New ideas and concepts can energize a football team. If you played football at any level, think back to when your offense or defensive coordinator brought something new to the chalkboard.
“We’re going to come out in a Wishbone formation. Modesto High won’t know what’s coming.”
Players get excited about surprises, and I have no doubt the 49ers’ defense was amped to have the leash removed and given an aggressive game plan.
Saleh has another shot this week to prove his defensive scheme works, and to become more comfortable in calling high-risk blitzes that yield momentum-shifting rewards. He needs to keep hammering home the fundamentals – tackling, assignments, technique. Regressing back to a conservative defense with a hope to contain rookie running back Saquon Barkley is not the key to victory.
On Monday, it’s time to show the Giants another page of the defensive playbook, and keep the game in the hands of the 49ers’ rebooted offense.
Stats and photos courtesy of NFL.com.
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