The San Francisco 49ers are expected to hire Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers coach Robert Saleh as their next defensive coordinator. Naturally that has brought plenty of speculation about what it means for the 49ers defense. The team is on its fourth coach in as many years, and with each change we have asked whether or not the team will make the switch from 3-4 to 4-3. And now, it appears a change is afoot.
ESPN’s Adam Caplan reported on Monday that the team will use something similar to Gus Bradley’s defense in Jacksonville.
For those asking: 49ers expected to run 4-3. Same as Gus Bradley's defense. Some coaches say has elements of a 3-4 on tape.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) February 14, 2017
Saleh coached in Jacksonville with Gus Bradley from 2014 to 2016. Prior to that he was defensive quality control coach in Seattle from 2011 to 2013. During that stretch, Bradley was the DC in 2011 and 2012, and Dan Quinn was the DC in 2013. The Seahawks ran a 4-3, but mixed in 3-4 elements as well.
We will be doing plenty of film breakdown of Bradley’s defense, and the variations and permutations that make it up. In the meantime, our friends at Big Cat Country broke it down when Bradley first joined the Jaguars. Chris Brown had a great breakdown over at Grantland three years ago. And last November, Matt Barrows took a look at the roster and switching to a 4-3 defense. It does not factor in some of the intricacies of the Bradley defense, but it provides some still pertinent reading material. And of course, the team will spend the bulk of its time in sub-packages, so the impact of this is not quite as big as it would have been years back when base defenses were where a team spent the bulk of its time.
After we heard about Saleh, I shot David Neumann an email to get some of his thoughts. He won’t be doing film breakdown for us this year, instead focusing on some broader NFL stuff (I’ll drop in links from time-to-time). We’ll have our new crew of writers continuing to break down film. He offered some thoughts on what Bradley has done in Jacksonville, and what it means for the 49ers.
A lot of times that 4-3 scheme Carroll and his offspring run ends up looking like a 3-4 alignment. Most of the time when you think about the 4-3, it's the 4-3 over, which has your three LBs back off the ball, your two DEs outside the tackles, etc. Carroll’s 4-3 takes the the strong-side LB (the OTTO he mentions) and puts him on the line of scrimmage, so you only have two off-ball LBs like the 3-4, with the OTTO and LEO (just the weak-side DE) basically acting like your 3-4 OLBs.
The DL is mainly where the “hybrid” part comes in. The strong-side DE in Carroll’s scheme has been this bigger, run-stuffing type DE a lot of the time, so that player resembles more of what you’d have in a 3-4 DE. That player will also align over the tackle (5-tech, which is outside shoulder of the tackle) and two-gap a lot of the time, which is usually a 3-4 thing. So he ends up mixing one-gap and two-gap players up front, which most 4-3 defenses don’t do.
For the Niners, their OLB’s (if they were actually any good) could slot into the OTTO and LEO spots, though they don’t really have the pure pass rusher you’re typically looking for at LEO (guess would be that Harold is the current guy most suited for that spot). Though since I would imagine there’s going to be a solid amount of roster turnover anyway, there will probably be quite a few new additions.
I think the biggest questions relating to the current roster I would have would be: 1) What happens with Buckner and Armstead in base (both would be best suited for that strong-side 5-tech DE role and don’t really have a clear fit for another spot in the defense, but of course, would be fine when they’re in sub-packages); and 2) Do they move Jimmie Ward to FS as their Earl Thomas (could see him doing well in that spot)? Everyone else can either fairly easily slide into a similar role in the 4-3 scheme or doesn’t matter.