In 2017 and 2018, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh experienced plenty of scrutiny for a lackluster defense. All that has changed in 2019, however.
The San Francisco 49ers won a combined 10 games between 2017 and 2018, the first two seasons under head coach Kyle Shanahan and his defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh.
Saleh, a first-time coordinator in 2017, implemented his Seattle Seahawks-like 4-3 Under, Cover 3 scheme, and the initial results weren’t particularly impressive. His first year, the Niners defense ranked 25th in scoring and then 28th in 2018. Last year, San Francisco set a record low for teams in a non-strike-shortened year in the modern era with just seven defensive takeaways.
Needless to say, calls for firing Saleh rose in 2018. And there were many who thought he’d be the first to get the ax if things went south this season.
And, wow. How so much has changed since last year.
Through six weeks, the 49ers own the No. 2 scoring defense and rank second in all-purpose yards allowed per game. The secondary, which Pro Football Focus ranked dead last at the conclusion of 2018, is now allowing a league-best 150.2 pass yards per game.
There are a number of reasons behind Saleh’s turnaround. San Francisco’s defensive investments, namely linebacker Kwon Alexander and edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, have made a world of difference in the front seven, taking pressure off the secondary and directly leading to the 12 turnovers the Niners have forced over this five-game stretch.
Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has made a difference, too, implementing his Wide-9 alignment for the defensive front.
Yet Saleh’s maturation deserves a lot of credit as well. He was learning on the job, and the experience is starting to pay off.
He’s certainly enjoying the success, too, particularly after some key third- and fourth-down goal-line stops against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6:
“I have been sent all the memes and everything,” Shanahan told reporters of Saleh earlier this week. “It’s what I expect. I mess with him all the time. That’s his style. He has the cleanly shaven head every single day he talks to you guys, very tan, lifts a lot and knows what he’s doing. He enjoys game day too. We always mess with him over it, but that’s Saleh.”
Last October, Shanahan told Tim Kawakami of The Athletic (h/t David Bonilla of 49ers Webzone) Saleh “not to be here would be a huge surprise” to the head coach, essentially putting his faith in an assistant many were scrutinizing at the time.
Armed with one of the best defenses in the league, Shanahan’s support of Saleh is paying off nicely.
“I think he knows how to coach defense,” Shanahan continued. “If you don’t stress extreme violence it’s tough to play football. He knows what it takes, but he just wears a bracelet on it, it’s not like it’s tatted on his face or anything. He’s a nice guy, but no, he’s a very good coach who knows how to get the most out of his players.”
There’s some chatter Saleh could be a rising name among possible head coaching candidates in 2020, which is certainly a possibility.
But as the Sacramento Bee’s Chris Biderman pointed out, the Niners may respond with a hefty pay raise to keep Saleh in the building for at least another season. It was Biderman’s conclusion Saleh stays put in 2020.
And if San Francisco’s defense maintains its prowess through this season and into the next, that might be a great thing, too.