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In defense of Robert Saleh

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The #FireSaleh movement is out in force again. Scott Geelan speaks in mitigation of the 49ers’ DC

NFL: Oakland Raiders at San Francisco 49ers Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

After a brief hiatus, another defeat for the 49ers has seen the return of the #FireSaleh movement. In many respects, this was inevitable.

Robert Saleh is the first-time defensive coordinator opposite the heroic genius of Kyle Shanahan, and someone has to be the scapegoat. John Lynch is too charismatic, landed the 49ers’ franchise QB in a bargain trade, drafted the man who could well be the NFL’s most complete tight end in the fifth round and signed the best running back on the roster as an UDFA. This can’t all be his fault. Neither can it be the fault of aforementioned heroic genius Kyle Shanahan. He’s way too smart and we’ve got the evidence to show it.

To be clear, I am not suggesting it’s either Shanahan’s or Lynch’s fault. Neither has been perfect and there have been some questionable decisions from them both. That’s the real world; that’s football. No one’s perfect and every decision made is under the microscope, picked apart by anyone with a pair of eyes and debated by everyone with a voice box or a keyboard.

But what if this is not the fault of one person? Instead the problem is that, as we should have expected with the absence of several key pieces (through injury or total lack of existence), this roster as it stands today is nowhere near good enough. One could argue that the offense is missing one or two pieces right now: The quarterback and possibly another receiver (one who can stay healthy). The defense? That’s another story entirely, one I’ll get into more shortly.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh takes the brunt of the criticism directed towards the 49ers. He’s seemingly always wrong and solutions that are clearly staring everyone else in the face pass him by.

Of course, he should not be left free from criticism. Earlier in the year, the 49ers’ tackling woes were sufficiently widespread and repeated ad nauseam across the roster to justify serious criticism of the defensive coaching as a whole. The rotation that appeared at outside cornerback was frustrating, but some of the things that have been said in press conferences suggest that was less about on field play and more about poor practice habits. Furthermore, execution issues cannot purely be put down to players failing out on the football field without us knowing how effective the 49ers’ coaching staff is at communicating and teaching what they are looking for from the players.

That being said, the focus of 49ers fans on Saleh and his contribution to the 49ers’ struggles has reached absurd levels. The truth is that Saleh is missing a vast number of crucial pieces on his defense, absences which showed last night and have impacted the ability of the defense to execute and function as it is supposed to.

The lack of an edge rusher

Most obvious is the absence of a high quality edge rusher. Much of the blame for this should fall on the men higher up the food chain than Robert Saleh.

In year one, the team took Solomon Thomas, hoping he could develop into an NFL pass rusher. The problem was, he was always seen as an inside rusher. I’ll talk more about Thomas later. The team also took Pita Taumoepenu, hoping he could develop into an NFL pass rusher. There’s not much to say about that. In year two, the 49ers didn’t even draft an edge rusher. In a scheme predicated on creating pressure with four players and dropping seven into coverage, not having a dangerous rusher off the edge creates major issues.

The coordinator has essentially two options in such a scenario. Blitz more, and thus leave the coverage somewhat shorthanded, or get creative with four man pressures. The latter involves zone exchanges or being creative rushing in front of man coverage. In both those scenarios, a normal coverage player rushes the passer and a normal pass rusher drops into coverage - so you still get four rushers and seven cover players.

Saleh has utilized both approaches this season, with the latter preferred last night given the Giants skill position talent. The reality is that neither are truly desirable in this scheme. You want your four down linemen rushing the passer the vast majority of the time, and seven players (linebackers and defensive backs) in coverage. The 49ers simply have to address edge rusher in this year’s draft, one that is stacked full of pass rushing talent. With Nick Bosa likely off the board, I like the Florida Gators’ Jachai Polite.

The lack of quality at strong safety and linebacker

Losing Jaquiski Tartt and Reuben Foster has been a major issue for this defense. When healthy, both players’ all-round abilities (especially in coverage) has allowed Saleh to mitigate the absence of a stud edge rusher and get creative rushing the passer, as well as get help elsewhere in coverage. Being able to cover the modern day mismatch weapons in the NFL (tight ends and running backs) on a consistent basis was a significant part of the 49ers’ defensive jigsaw. Last night, we saw the impact of their absence on the 49ers’ defensive flexibility.

Facing an offense that was loaded at the skill positions, Saleh simply could not blitz given the risk of leaving many of his cover players in one-on-one coverage. In fact, he seemingly needed to hide a couple of them. Saleh was actually able to scheme up pressure as well as ensure double teams where they were most necessary, but a lack of execution let him down. Most notable, was the long catch and run from Saquon Barkley where Malcolm Smith lost inside contain; and the touchdown to Odell Beckham, when Jimmie Ward went walkabout when he should have been playing cover 2 man. If you get the chance, re-watch the latter; you’ll see Antone Exum gesticulating wildly at Ward before the snap.

The lack of quality/experience at free safety

The free safety position in this scheme is correctly adjudged as the quarterback of this defense. Pre-snap, they play a major role in getting players set up and post-snap they are crucial as the eyes of the defense and for their communication with their fellow cover players.

After having an excellent rookie season, Adrian Colbert came crashing down to earth, largely due to his inability to respond correctly to the concepts offenses were throwing at him and his fellow defensive backs. Hopefully he can bounce back in his third season, but year two was not a good one.

Jimmie Ward has had a positive impact on the communication side of things, and his tackling has been top notch. However, he was totally out of position on the Odell Beckham touchdown and he hasn’t performed up to the level the 49ers really need from their free safety.

The free safety doesn’t need to be a complete physical freak in the manner of Earl Thomas. More importantly, he needs to be incredibly smart and vocal; experience clearly plays a significant role. Thomas’ combination of those traits along with freakish athleticism made him the greatest to ever play the position, but players like Tashaun Gipson have performed the role extremely well without the same staggering athletic traits.

The lack of a dime backer

In the modern day NFL, when dime is the new base package for several defenses, the lack of at least one dime backer on the roster is another serious oversight from the 49ers. This doesn’t fall on Robert Saleh.

The way the league has gone, teams need someone who can come onto the field on third down and cover tight ends and running backs man to man, or who can come onto the field on earlier downs and play in big nickel packages. Most linebackers can’t cover tight ends or running backs - the 49ers are exceptionally lucky to have two who can. Very few teams have three coverage linebackers that in turn reduces the need for a second strong safety type who can play in big nickel style packages (perhaps the Carolina Panthers are the only team). Even with two high caliber linebackers, the injury history of Reuben Foster suggests contingency plans needed to be made and the reality of the modern NFL suggests teams need more of the box-safety/linebacker hybrids on their roster.

Last season, the 49ers had Eric Reid. In previous seasons, that role was filled by current starter Jaquiski Tartt. The Chargers’ defense has used three safety packages to good effect and the Texans’ versatility in the secondary (they have multiple players who can play safety/corner/nickel corner) has helped them counteract the multiple nature of NFL offenses and get on a winning streak.

With Marcell Harris only just coming back and entirely unproven, the 49ers don’t have the sort of multiplicity that defenses need in the modern NFL. Saleh himself has shown no aversion to utilizing players’ versatility if they possess it, but he’s lacked the horses this season to do so. Outside of a few players, his roster is too one dimensional. The lack of a dime backer is the clearest representation of that.

Solomon Thomas

I wanted to put Thomas on his own, because it’s a discussion that needs to be had. Thomas was supposed to be the player who this defense was built around, a sort of Aaron Donald-lite who dominated in the rushing game and passing game alike. That was never going to be the case last year and it was unfair to expect a significant amount of him given the transition from college to the NFL.

This year however, we expected more. Not necessarily a top ten/top fifteen defensive linemen just yet, but far more than what we’ve seen. He continues to be impactful against the run, but he still lacks anything like the necessary impact as a pass rusher. He looks labored and bereft of ideas.

Some will tell you that’s because he’s not played inside enough. That is only partly true. He could be used inside more, but he’s had so little impact when out there he’s hardly made a case to be used any more than his fellow interior rushers. Furthermore, with the onus on Saleh to create pressure, he’s often only had room on the field for one true interior rusher, and no one is beating out DeForest Buckner for that role. I plan on writing an article and/or doing a twitter thread on Thomas in the near future, but he needed to be included in this piece as well. When a supposed cornerstone of the defense isn’t playing anywhere near well enough, the defensive coordinator is going to have a tough time working around that.

Conclusion

I hope it’s clear that the #FireSaleh movement needs to take a significant amount into consideration before calling for an end to Robert Saleh’s time as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. Saleh is missing the two most important pieces for his scheme to operate well (edge rusher and free safety), has other key pieces that would mitigate those absences injured and the supposed centerpiece of the defense is not playing at the required level. When you consider that, there should, conversely, be some appreciation of what Saleh has been able to achieve. In fact, at 10th in the NFL in yards per game and 12th in yards per play, we should perhaps be looking at the terrible positions the defense has repeatedly been put in by the offense as a source of many of the points the 49ers have given up.

Saleh has been able to achieve this despite having to heavily adapt what he’d ideally like to do defensively to try and mitigate the weaknesses of his existing personnel. Instead of calling for his firing, we should instead be more appreciative that we haven’t had to watch some of the defenses wasting talented players that are on show around the NFL. Robert Saleh has this defense playing better than its personnel should be allowing it to, rather than the other way around. I for one hope that he’ll be given the pieces he needs for year three so we can fairly assess his performances in the future.