The San Francisco 49ers are in the midst of a roster and scheme overhaul on both sides of the ball, and that means it could be some time before we get a real handle on the state of the roster. On the defensive side of the ball, there has been heavy investment to re-build what had been a dominant unit under Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio. The last three three years of first round picks are most notable, but there has been plenty more added to and adjust in this unit.
The 49ers face off against a Seahawks squad this week that is build around a dominant defense. And it just so happens that defense is influential in the building of this 49ers defense. Robert Saleh got his NFL break with the Houston Texans, but his three years in Seattle and then three years with Gus Bradley in Jacksonville provided the formative education in his defensive philosophy.
Saleh met with the 49ers media on Thursday in preparation for Seattle, and naturally he got a few questions about that defense. He talked about how dominant some of those units were, and he said it was a testament to those players and the leadershup they provided. As Saleh put it, “The best coached teams are teams that coach themselves. Those guys are well oiled in that regard.”
Naturally he was asked if he saw any of that with his current group of players. The 49ers have a mix of youngsters and veterans, all learning the system, and all looking to come together as a unit.
“I think it’s in every player to be a servant leader and to really provide leadership to all the people around them. Servant leadership to me is the ultimate form of leadership where anyone, from a rookie to a veteran, can put himself in a position to help everyone around him get better. Doesn’t matter whether you’re the star or not, you can provide leadership. So, have those guys come to fruition yet? I have an idea. I’m not going to name names or anything. But, I’m excited for this group because they really believe in the things they’re capable of and they really believe in the system. It’s cool to see other teams like Jacksonville, Atlanta, Seattle and now the Chargers to have success, and them understand they can do that too. There’s a lot of tape for them to watch to show that what we’re asking, they’re capable of. Especially this group. From a maturation standpoint, they’re so young. I do believe that it’s in this group.”
The 49ers defense showed some good things against the Carolina Panthers in Week 1, only to come up short in a thumping. A blown coverage and tackle led to the Panthers first score, and the Panthers wore down the 49ers defense in the second half.
Saleh discussed the mistakes, but also felt like he saw things that show a team that could have dominated the Panthers offense. Scott Geelan discussed some of the mistakes and bad breaks that cost the 49ers. The coaching staff needs to do its job getting the players prepared, and execution will be critical, but there are some reasons for optimism.
Whether or not we see this unit break out in 2017 remains to be seen. Saleh liked what he saw, but also sees only two mindsets. You are either happy not to be the reason the team lost, or happy to be the reason the team won. He said the 49ers will “arrive on stage” when they are dictating the outcome of games. There are plenty of bad breaks that will cost even the best teams, but when you can dictate to the opponent, then you’re talking about an impressive unit. We saw that to some extent five years ago, and we’ll wait and see if this group can get anywhere near that level of play.