(This is the second part of a series. You can read the first part here.)
We have heard a fair amount about the front office of the San Francisco 49ers this off-season, but looking beyond the Lynchahan conviviality narratives (all good, as far as I can tell) it may also be worth taking a look at what the new regime has revealed in the offseason and project what we might see on Sundays on the football field. To put it another way: oddsmakers expect the 49ers to win only a couple of games this year. If not wins, then one should know what else to look for. And in order to do that, we first need to understand what Shanahan is trying to build.
Defensive scheme and philosophy
In some cases a fundamental philosophy like Monte Kiffin’s Cover 2 and its derivative, Pete Carroll’s 4-3-Under can thrive for decades without much fear of NFL adjustments. Kyle Shanahan’s approach to beating the NFL’s evolutionary dynamic is an extension of this history: speed, quickness and versatility plus an obsession for precision. He’d rather run just three plays really, really well than thirteen plays kinda-well. In other words, his answer to the NFL’s propensity for adjustment is to hide the unpredictability and skill of his players in plain sight.
Shanahan is a great philosophical fit for the Seattle defense, universally described as a fundamentally "sound" scheme, not dependent on tricks. You know what you’re going to get from that defense. The real trick is executing it well, and only Seattle and the Jags (so some extent) have succeeded in doing that so far. Dan Quinn in Atlanta and Ken Norton in Oakland have had far less success, the latter case having been exacerbated by a competing philosophy from the head coach, Del Rio. I think Gus Bradley will do a good job installing the system in San Diego, after cutting his teeth in Jacksonville.
I am impressed by Saleh’s demeanor and credentials. He was Defensive Quality Control Coach for Kubiak in Houston and Carroll in Seattle (3 years apiece) before becoming a real coach with the Jaguars. The combined length of his assignment at QCC (6 years) is probably a record for an NFL coach. There is no job in the NFL that is more demanding in terms of long hours, more disruptive to family life, and that teaches you more about the evolving game. Most big-name coaches have done that job for 1-2 years in their early careers and they will all tell you that’s where they really learned football. Saleh has done it for 6 years, which tells me that he enjoyed and was valued for his analytical skills in making NFL adjustments to opponents week-to-week. His long exposure to the Seattle system, both with the Hawks and the Jags has certainly given him more domain expertise than most. Success in this league is about scheme-relevant adjustments in real time. I have no idea how good he is as a teacher, but I am very curious to see how Saleh’s career develops.
It is almost unfair to attempt a comparison between Saleh and O’Neal, so I will not go there. O’Neal was simply not coordinator-caliber. And, to be honest, no one knows yet if Saleh is. But the way in which this franchise has approached player acquisition for the 4-3U system they plan to implement is quite impressive.
For starters, the role of the under-tackle is famously unique and important in the 4-3U alignment. The UT must repeatedly take advantage of being single-teamed and disrupt the backfield while still defending the run. In that sense, Solomon Thomas is a good fit there. Ronald Blair might be too. I believe the 49ers still need to find their Leo. Will they compensate for this deficiency by moving D-linemen around to exploit matchups? By green-dogging? Or will they just settle on Lynch or Taumoepenu as a poor man’s Leo? Something to watch for.
The coverage responsibilities of the Mike LB (and how other defenders help out in that responsibility) are the key to success or failure of both offense and defense in the 49ers new regime — which, by the way, is why Bowman will probably never be the best Mike in this scheme. I am interested to see if there’s a good cover LB among the special teamers signed, or if someone like Jaquiski Tartt or Donavin Newsom might replace a LB like Malcolm Smith on sub packages. Yes, I know, Smith is supposed to be the Will, but Foster fits that role too, if his shoulder holds. Smith could end up being the Mike on base downs and, if so, his coverage responsibilities are something to watch for.
The team was not able to capture a quality single-high safety in this draft. That is a key position for implementing this defense successfully. I have a sneaky suspicion the 49ers coveted Budda Baker but he was picked monstrously early (36th overall) by the Cardinals. Not a particularly tall player, but definitely with the intangibles for the position. What this means is that Jimmie Ward is our plan A, B and C. An injury there could really cost us.
On the other hand, I see the potential for real improvement based on the two acquisitions at the 0/1-tech position. That, together with a jolt of Reuben Foster (assuming his shoulder holds up) and a healthy Bowman should help in stopping the run. So the immediate test of Saleh’s defense will be to see if the 49ers can make a huge jump in their run defense, and I would look at those stats early in the season for signs of improvement.
Why does this component matter? Because the success of Carroll’s scheme is 100% predicated on making it impossible for teams to run. That lets the defense get more hair-on-fire and makes attempted passes shorter, a fundamental goal of the Kiffin and Ryan schemes, both of which are offshoots of aggressive 5-2 alignments from the fifties called Philadelphia and Oklahoma. These aggressive approaches, when successful, can make the MLB’s pass coverage responsibilities narrower in space and time (but see the section on offense, above, about countering this problem with speedy receivers to stretch the field) thereby covering up a weakness of the scheme. Anyway, the point is this: it all starts with the run defense. So I will be looking for that component as a point of emphasis early in the season.