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49ers’ defense disappoints in biggest game of season

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh got credit for the win over the Rams, so he deserves the blame for the unit’s awful performance against the Bills.

Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

What a difference a week makes.

After the San Francisco 49ers beat the Los Angeles Rams in Week 12, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was the talk of the town. The defense swamped Rams’ QB Jared Goff and carried the team to a victory.

It looked like Saleh’s unit would replicate its effort versus the Rams against the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football. The Niners forced a turnover on downs on the Bills’ first possession and followed that up with a fumble recovery on the very next drive.

However, the unit was embarrassed by quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills’ offense from that point on. Allen lit up San Francisco’s defense, going 32-of-40 for 375 yards and four touchdowns. It looked like Buffalo was playing pitch and catch on the field. The receivers seemed to be open on virtually every play and the 49ers’ defense made it easy for the Bills to execute their game plan of carving up the zone.

Allen threw for 236 yards in the first half alone and only had four incompletions. Still, Saleh made no adjustments at half time to try and get Allen off his game.

“That’s probably the worst part is that we knew exactly what they were running, from head-to-toe,” linebacker Dre Greenlaw said after the game. “We just came up short. It’s a weird feeling, but we knew exactly what they were running.”

That sure didn’t seem to be the case. If anything, the Bills looked like they knew how to take advantage of the Niners’ Cover 3 scheme with ease. Allen torched the 49ers for 284 yards and two touchdowns when they were in zone, only missing on two pass attempts against the coverage. San Francisco failed to get any sort of meaningful pressure against Allen when it rushed four defenders. Instead of getting creative to manufacture some pressure, the Niners played right into Buffalo’s hands.

David Lombardi of The Athletic points out just how much time Allen had to find the open man.

“Honestly, it felt like they were calling the perfect plays for everything we were dialing up,” Fred Warner said. “They did a great job on their end and we were trying different looks, but we just couldn’t get off the field.”

San Francisco made veteran receiver Cole Beasley look like an All-Pro. Beasley racked up 113 yards in the first half alone, eclipsing his previous career-high of 112 in just two quarters. Beasley, and Stefon Diggs routinely found the soft spot of the zone and the fact cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Jason Verrett had off nights made for a recipe for disaster.

Saleh looked perplexed on the sidelines during the broadcast. His defense had no answer for the Bills and repeatedly shot themselves in the foot.

Kentavious Street took an ill-advised roughing the passer penalty that gave Buffalo a first down instead of setting up a third-and-18 while outside of field goal range. Then just two plays later, safety Tavarious Moore was severely out of position leading to an easy 23-yard touchdown by Isiah McKenzie, giving the Bills a 24-10 lead.

The 49ers cut the deficit to 10 points with a late third quarter score and needed the defense to get a big stop on Buffalo’s next possession. Instead, Allen and the Bills marched 75 yards down the field and punctuated the drive with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Allen to Gabriel Davis that resulted from a miscommunication in the secondary.

Buffalo only punted once the entire game, which came with just 3:44 left in the fourth quarter. San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan knew it was too easy of an outing for the Bills. His defense couldn’t do anything to slow down Allen, Diggs and Beasley.

“Obviously, it didn’t work out well,” Shanahan said. “I know that we did blitz sometimes, when I get back to the hotel I’ll find out much. But, when we did blitz, he got away from it. When we didn’t he just dinked and dunked it and got after us too.”

Saleh’s defense routinely underperforms against dual-threat quarterbacks. The 49ers are 0-3 against teams with dynamic quarterbacks this season, losing to the Bills, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.

In those three losses, the Niners have given up an average of 374 yards and 31.6 points per game.

Saleh has been getting some attention as a potential head coaching candidate for next season. He better hope any future employers skip this game tape because it will showcase one of his major weaknesses, which is his inability to make in-game adjustments.