The San Francisco 49ers underwent one major change this offseason when they lost defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who is now the head coach of the New York Jets. Saleh did a great job with the unit, especially over the past two seasons.
Since he took over in 2017, San Francisco’s defense improved immensely under Saleh. Here is where the 49ers’ defense has ranked in DVOA over the past four seasons, per Football Outsiders.
The 2020 season got off to a brutal start for Saleh and the defense. First, Dee Ford and Richard Sherman were hurt in the Week 1 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, and then the unit lost Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas to torn ACLs in the Week 2 win over the New York Jets.
Even without all of the high-end talent, Saleh did a great job making sure his guys were prepared each week. San Francisco’s pass-rushing took a noticeable hit without Bosa and Ford, but the emergence of players like Jason Verrett and Kerry Hyder helped Saleh’s unit remain strong. The defense kept the team in games — despite missing Pro Bowl level players — is the main reason Saleh became one of the hottest names in league circles to get a head coaching gig in 2021.
Despite missing Bosa, Ford, Sherman and countless others, the Niners finished fifth in the NFL in total yards allowed. The defense’s performance under less than ideal circumstances led to Saleh being hired by the Jets.
The 49ers stayed in-house to find his replacement, promoting former linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans to defensive coordinator.
Ryans was a part of Shanahan’s original hires in 2017, initially joining the team as a defensive quality control coach before taking over the linebacking group.
Ryans had a ton of success during his playing days. He won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2006, was a first-team All-Pro the following season was named to two Pro Bowls before retiring following the 2015 season.
There have been encouraging results under Ryans already. He has helped the Niners’ linebacking corps develop into one of the best in the league. Fred Warner’s development under Ryans shows how effective he can be at his job. Warner is one of the premiere coverage linebackers in the league and was named a First-Team All-Pro in 2020.
San Francisco hopes the defense will remain one of the team’s strong points under Ryans. The NFL Network’s Jim Trotter says Shanahan and the 49ers are optimistic the defense won’t skip a beat under the new coordinator (h/t 49ers Web Zone).
“One thing about DeMeco Ryans, he is a guy within the organization that many people believe is on that track to become a head coach one day,” Trotter told Marc Ross and Andrew Siciliano. “He’s very studious. He’s very serious about his work. He’s a former player who relates well to players, and he has put in his time. So they are very high on DeMeco Ryans about what he can bring to this defense and for what his future is.”
Ryans said that although the Niners’ defense will employ similar tactics that we saw under Saleh, there will be some changes. Ryans said he wants the unit to be more aggressive and play faster next season.
In 2020, the Niners’ defense blitzed on 33.6 percent of their snaps, 10th most in the NFL. Ryans is thankful for the lessons he learned from Saleh but is looking forward to putting his own stamp on the defense.
“I am my own person. Saleh has taught me a lot, probably one of the coaches that’s taught me the most football that I’ve been around,” Ryans said at his introductory press conference. “He’s been very integral to my development as a coach, and I can’t thank him enough for all the things he’s instilled in me. So there will be some of the similar scheme things that we’ve done in the past. You will see some similarities there, but you will see some wrinkles. You will see my brand of football on it.”
How different do you think the 49ers’ defense will be next season under Ryans? Do you think the unit will be ranked in the top five once again in 2021?