Last week, we took a look at San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan to see how he could improve as a coach and not just a play-caller. Today, we’ll look at the other side of the ball, which starts with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
It’s easy to remember Brian Allen starting against Miami, or those occasions during the season when an offense converts a third down or the defense misses a tackle. It doesn’t matter the record; fans will always look to blame someone. That someone is generally a coordinator. In Saleh’s case, he’s been fantastic during 2020.
Imagine having a gameplan for how you want to attack opposing offenses, seeing it play out in historic fashion for an entire season, see 2019, and have to scrap that plan five quarters into 2020. That’s what Saleh had to do when Nick Bosa and Dee Ford went down. San Francisco’s played nine cornerbacks this season. Due to injury, 13 defensive lineman have played extensive snaps at one point this season. Add in the various injuries that have happened in between, and Saleh has turned one of the worst imaginable hands you could be dealt with into a salvageable product that is still competitive.
Knowing how hard the 49ers have been hit with injuries make the following numbers even more impressive for the Niners defense:
EPA per play: 13th
Success rate: 12th
Third down: 7th
Red zone: 15th
Explosive passing plays: 9th fewest
Saleh has found ways to keep this unit above average across the board, despite not having a pass rush.
How has Saleh done it?
Despite losing several quality defenders, the 49ers still have plenty of talent on this side of the ball. Fred Warner is one of the best defenders in the league. Jason Verrett has arguably performed like a top-10 cornerback this season. Arik Armstead doesn’t have the numbers, but his play hasn’t been that different from a season ago. Add in the surprise play of Kerry Hyder, the consistency of Jimmie Ward, and the flashes from role players, and you have your answer.
Saleh has found ways to manufacture pressure this season, something he didn’t have to do a year ago. With Bosa last year, the 49ers were pressuring the quarterback 28.7%, the second-highest rate in the NFL, while blitzing just under 21% of the time, which was the fourth-lowest in the league. This season, the 49ers are pressuring the quarterback 24% of the time, which is the seventh-highest total in the league, but they have to blitz a whopping 34% of the time, which is the ninth-highest in the league.
Now, Saleh can’t sack the quarterback himself. He can only draw up the plays. Take Warner’s usage, for example. In 2019, the Niners stud linebacker rushed the passer 56 times. Warner has already rushed the passer 48 times this season. Why? Well, he’s arguably one of the team’s best pass rushers, and sacks are hard to come by.
San Francisco is 22nd in adjusted sack rate this season as they’ve sacked the quarterback 5.4% of the time. This defense was second a year ago at 9%. Generating pressure hasn’t been an issue for the 49ers; finishing has. That’s why I have a hard time giving as much credit to “hurries” as most do. Too often, we see the quarterback make a positive play as a defender has pressure. Quarterbacks are affected when they’re on the ground or after a defensive player hits them. The 49ers are 17th in QB knockdown percentage this season. So, they’re getting “pressure,” but they’re not getting close enough to impact the quarterback.
Where can Saleh improve?
It’s difficult to blame Saleh for much of anything this season, given the hand he was dealt. The defense has been prepared coming into each game. In Week 1, the Cardinals punted on their first two drives and only scored on their next drive thanks to a blocked punt. The Dolphins and the Packers are the only teams to score on their opening drives this season. In fact, they’re the only two teams that have gained more than 30 yards on their first possession. That’s incredible.
Making in-game adjustments is an area I’ve seen fans want to see more improvement from Saleh. Let’s use the Saints game as an example. Saleh took safety Marcell Harris and put him in the box. That gave the Niners more athleticism on the field. The Saints had a play where they ran the ball 18 yards because Harris was the “force player,” meaning he couldn’t let the running back get outside of him. Well, Alvin Kamara did, and that’s why there was a long gain.
Mental mistakes and missed tackles are not a coaching issue. Falling for double moves in the secondary or not getting your head around in time on a deep pass doesn’t fall on the coaches’ shoulders. Has Saleh been perfect? Of course not. I’d like to see Saleh continue to rely on his athletes, even if they’re not playing their true “position,” because that gives the defense the best chance to get off the field.
Factor in context, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a coach who would perform better given the situation. Cherish Saleh while he’s still around, Niners fans.