The San Francisco 49ers have proven that they can beat you in many, many different ways, but the go-to has been the defense, the defensive line in particular. This was a defense that began as league-historically bad before defensive coordinator Robert Saleh arrived. Once he was in the driver’s seat, his defense improved, but still had difficulty closing games for two years. Three years in, it puts games away early. Turns out, it might not be the DC, but the D-line coach that gets some credit.
NFL reporter Benjamin Allbright said on Saturday that the defense’s success is less on Saleh and more on defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.
Robert Saleh is getting all the HC hype, but internally new DL coach Kris Kocurek is seen as largely responsible for the Niners defensive emergence this year.— Benjamin Allbright (@AllbrightNFL) November 2, 2019
Before the Arizona Cardinals game last Thursday, the 49ers held teams to an average of 11 points. We haven’t even gotten to the rushing and passing yards they haven’t allowed. Now that number has ballooned a bit thanks to Arizona getting some numbers, but any way you look at it, it’s impressive and starts with the defensive line. Last year, a number of passes were completed because the 49ers pass-rush simply couldn’t work itself out of a wet paper bag. It got worse in the money moments with DeForest Buckner the only one to cause any sort of havoc on the line.
The 49ers fired defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina at the conclusion of the 2018 season. They went and got Kocurek after the Miami Dolphins let him go along with the rest of Adam Gase’s staff, and the rest is history.
It’s not crazy to think Kocurek has a large hand in things. The secondary now has time to intercept errant passes thanks to the line swarming poor quarterbacks in the pocket. Opposing run games have also been stuffed thanks to the action up front. There’s a trickle effect, but a lot of credit has to go to Robert Saleh’s playcalling and adjustments in-game. When the 49ers get scored on, all Saleh needs is a lengthy offensive drive to get his defense on the same page. Well...most of the time. Kocurek has helped with the change, but Saleh is still calling plays and has been praised by players for calling great games.
A lot of talk has been made on the “Will he or won’t he?” regarding Saleh making the jump to head coach in the 2020 offseason. It’s not too far-fetched to think that Saleh might decide he wants to remain a defensive coordinator or doesn’t get an offer entirely. Assuming he turns in a top-10 defense, it would be the first year he’s done so. His other two years were him building things, but the product on the field was something that had some fans wanting him gone. He probably could get a head coaching offer somewhere, but he wouldn’t have the pick of the litter. I’d see him interviewing with several teams, but he also could just decide to stay as defensive coordinator for another season or two with the 49ers to get more experience.
Keep in mind, there is no hard rule here. Eric Mangini turned in a decent defense his sole year as defensive coordinator with the New England Patriots and got hired to the New York Jets rather quickly after that season. Saleh very well could be the pick of the league depending on how this defense turns out. I’m just also pointing out that he has little experience turning in year after year of successful defenses.
The good news is that if Saleh were to leave, the 49ers have a defensive coordinator waiting in the wings in Kocurek. That is, if he’d want the job. Some position coaches like teaching the position and have little desire to be a coordinator. Tom Rathman, who coached the 49ers’ running backs for several coaching regimes, was never considered for offensive coordinator because he had no interest. Kocurek could fall into the same mentality, or maybe he’s the next in line if Saleh takes over. We don’t know.
Regardless, of who were to be next in line, the 49ers (obviously) have a winning strategy so far and Kocurek has had a huge hand in turning the pass rush around which has benefited the entire defense.
Having Dee Ford and Nick Bosa in 2019 helps too.