After a disappointing start to the season from the SF 49ers’ defense, it is time to fire defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
SF 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has come under fire for the team’s abysmal defensive showing against quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Miami Dolphins in Week 5.
The Niners lost 43-17 to a team that, until recently, was the laughingstock of the NFL.
Some of Saleh’s criticism came from NBC Sports Bay Area analyst Donte Whitner, a former Niners defensive back, who criticized Saleh specifically for his use of Brian Allen in Allen’s first NFL start while appearing on KNBR 680 shortly after the game:
Perhaps the most important statement Whitner makes in this video is “show me that the success of this defense is not only based on having individual great players.”
I would argue that for not only Week 5’s loss, but also the majority of Saleh’s time with the 49ers. The defense’s success has relied on individual great players more than Saleh’s coaching.
For this reason, as Week 5 proved, it’s time for the 49ers to move on from Saleh and search for a defensive coordinator who can put his players in positions to succeed, not just rely on their talent.
Last season, there was much speculation over whether or not Saleh would leave for an NFL head coaching job, leading to relief when he ultimately stayed with the team. At the time, I remember thinking, “this isn’t a very big deal, Saleh is a mediocre coordinator who succeeds when he has healthy, talented players, and fails to coach up his defense when the talent is less than stellar.”
After all, there was significant pressure to fire Saleh after the Niners’ rough 2018 season.
Now, this claim probably seems outlandish. The 49ers went to the Super Bowl last season largely on the back of a dominant defense, coached by Saleh. But, there’s a convincing case.
Specifics why SF 49ers would be better without Robert Saleh
Let’s take a look at the players Saleh was coaching last season. The 2019 49ers defense included stars like pass-rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, who were not on the Niners the year before. Additionally, linebacker Dre Greenlaw proved to be a star last season, and fellow linebacker Kwon Alexander was dominant when he was healthy. All of these players can and should be considered individual great players.
And with these players, as well as many other SF 49ers superstars, the defense thrived. According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers were the second-best defense in 2019. They boasted a dominant defense on the back of individual great players, most notably Bosa.
But the season before, the Niners lacked Bosa, Ford, Greenlaw, Alexander, and other defensive studs. That season, they were the NFL’s 24th ranked defense, again according to Football Outsiders.
So, Saleh’s defense performed a lot better in 2019 with a superior roster than in 2018 with an inferior one. Now, obviously, Saleh cannot fully be blamed for an inadequate roster. Good coaching can only overcome so much lack of talent. My argument is simply Saleh should have been able to coach that defense to perform better.
For example, look at the SF 49ers rushing offense in 2018 and 2019. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is one of the most respected offensive minds in the NFL and is particularly renowned for his ability to design an effective run game. The team’s offensive personnel significantly improved from 2018 to 2019 as well, most notably with the return of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from his ACL tear.
Obviously, Garoppolo does not directly impact the run game, but his absence made it easier for defenses to prepare for the run, without the threat of his passing. And yet, according to ESPN stats, in 2019, the 49ers finished second in the NFL in rushing. And in 2018, they finished 13th.
That is a significantly smaller drop than the Niners’ defense and shows how coaching can make up for a roster’s inferiority.
Saleh’s defensive coaching did not make up for his roster’s inferiority. Instead, Saleh’s defense performed well after an infusion of superstar talent and was likely also bolstered by the hiring of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Now, the 49ers find themselves without some of that superstar talent, and Saleh’s poor coaching is showing itself again. Saleh has consistently called poor coverage this year, and as with Allen, put his players in situations to fail.
At this point, the 49ers should look to move on from Saleh. Week 5 proved he is not capable of coaching this defense through its injuries. Perhaps the Niners should look to promote Kocurek, or they could wait until the end of the season and look to hire during the traditional offseason coaching carousel.
Either way, if Saleh can only succeed when his defense is full of superstars, it’s time to bring in a coordinator who can coach his defense to success when those superstars are injured.