Offseason Evaluation: Robert Saleh
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
What about Bob?
Should Robert Saleh take a long vacation?
All season long fans and beat writers alike have called for Robert Saleh to be removed from his position as defensive coordinator. The main complaints include continuing to drop defensive lineman like Solomon Thomas to cover tight ends, using Malcolm Smith to cover slot receivers, the lack of turnovers, and the perceived misuse of first round draft picks. Those fans and beat writers have been calling for replacements like Dan Quinn if he were to be fired by the Atlanta Falcons, which tells observers that those detractors weren’t upset with the scheme, but the sloppy play and lack of big plays from the defensive side since every replacement coach was connected to this type of a 4-3 scheme.
Were all of those negative words deserved? Maybe.
In the two years that Saleh has led the 49ers defense, they have finished with the following standings in defensive statistics. I have included the 2016 statistics on the far left as a comparison to what the 49ers were accomplishing before Saleh took over the DC job.
Looking at the league rankings, Saleh has actually done a pretty decent job considering he has rarely been able to start two games in a row with the same lineup, has finished both seasons playing late-round draft picks in the secondary, and has had virtually no pass rusher outside of interior lineman DeForest Buckner. These problems, coupled with a not so deep roster have left Saleh experimenting on how to get the job done with the pieces that have been assembled for him. That is the reason so many players have been playing out of position.
Another knock on Saleh is that he has kept veteran players like Earl Mitchell on the field when the season was lost instead of giving younger, inexperienced players an opportunity to shine. He was rarely able to get all of the last three first round draft picks (Thomas, Buckner, and Arik Armstead) on the field at the same time, unless it was kicking Thomas out to the edge, where he has shown to be ineffective. A lack of sacks and even the pressure that they generated in 2017, made 2018 a hard season for the defensive when it came to scoring and turnovers. Those three stats all go hand in hand.
One person who has continued to support Saleh over the last two years has been head coach Kyle Shanahan. At his December 7th press conference, Shanahan said,
“Saleh is a very, very good coach. He always had been, he still is and
he’s not a finished product either, like we all aren’t. I think Saleh will
continue to get better because he works at it, he’s very smart and I
think he’s good right now.”
In 2018 the team started off tackling like bulls chasing matadors, but by the end of the season players like Elijah Lee and Antone Exum Jr. were collecting double-digit tackles every game. Buckner recorded 12 sacks, his career best. Richard Sherman was the best cornerback in the NFL by passer rating, and average catches per plays – even though he didn’t record a single interception. Fred Warner ranked twelfth in the NFL in tackles, only 16 tackles behind the Dallas Cowboys’ Leighton Vander Esch and only six behind Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers. Lee showed that he could be a starting linebacker in the NFL and Armstead had his best season of his career.
With the defense trending up, and a really good chance to grab two or three stellar edge rushers along with safety Earl Thomas and another impact linebacker, whether that is a big name like C.J. Mosley or a quieter free agent signing, Saleh’s defense and scheme should continue to improve. With the gains on defense, it will be interesting to see if there are any position coach changes beyond who will be taking over as defensive backs coach this next season. This is the year that the defense has to take the next step to become a top-twelve defense if Saleh is going to be around in 2020.
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