While he’s taken flak, SF 49ers defensive coordinator has made the most out of the team’s defense in 2020 despite plenty of obstacles.
Last offseason, after the SF 49ers boasted one of the best defenses in the league en route to a Super Bowl appearance, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh received just one interview for a head-coaching vacancy.
That interview was with the Cleveland Browns, who ultimately elected to go with former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski.
Saleh, who was no stranger to criticism during head coach Kyle Shanahan’s first two years at the helm in 2017 and 2018, came to epitomize San Francisco’s stout and intimidating defense in 2019, giving life to his “all gas, no break” mantra. And while the Niners defense was a prime reason why they reached the Super Bowl that season, one can argue Saleh’s masterpiece so far as defensive coordinator has been 2020.
This year’s SF 49ers defense looks nothing like the one destined for the Super Bowl last season. All one needs to do is tally up the significant losses this unit has suffered over the course of the year to paint the picture:
- EDGE Nick Bosa*
- EDGE Dee Ford*
- CB Jason Verrett
- CB Richard Sherman*
- CB K’Waun Williams
- CB Emmanuel Moseley
- S Jaquiski Tartt*
- DE Ronald Blair*
- DE Solomon Thomas*
- LB Kwon Alexander* (subsequently traded)
- LB Dre Greenlaw
*denotes injured reserve
Each one of those players missed multiple games this season, essentially leaving nose tackle D.J. Jones, defensive end Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward the only 2019 full-time starters in the lineup over the entirety of this year. And one can’t overlook the SF 49ers switching out Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner for a rookie, Javon Kinlaw, via the 2020 NFL Draft.
But the most glaring absences have been those of Bosa (ACL) and Ford (back), who have combined for a mere three player games this season before landing on IR. Considering Saleh’s defense has been built on a four-man pass rush with seven players in coverage, losing these top two commodities could have ultimately resulted in San Francisco’s defense being almost entirely impotent.
Except it didn’t.
The Niners do have a losing record, entering their bye week with a 4-6 mark. But the defense hasn’t been the primary party responsible.
Despite some blowouts, often stemming from the offense being unable to sustain drives, Saleh’s defense ranks No. 10 in the NFL in scoring (234 points allowed) and No. 5 in yards surrendered (3,159).
Few probably predicted a top-10 defense with all those injury setbacks 10 games through the season.
Yet the rankings in other categories get even more incredible:
- First downs allowed: 198 (seventh)
- Pass yards allowed: 2,089 (fourth)
- Net pass yards per attempt: 6.3 (16th)
- Rush yards allowed: 1,070 (10th)
- Net rush yards per attempt: 3.9 (fifth)
- Yards allowed per drive: 29.3 (ninth)
All of this while the Niners have had something of an anemic pass rush. Through 10 weeks, the SF 49ers have just 18 sacks, which is tied for the 12th fewest in the league. Missing Bosa and Ford has hurt here.
But Saleh has adjusted, just as any head coach should do.
He’s been forced to scheme pressure now. In 2019, San Francisco’s blitz rate was just 20.9 percent — fourth lowest in the league. This season, that number has jumped to 34.1 percent. And the Niners still rank 11th best in generating pressure despite the lack of a four-man pass rush and without coming at the expense of a shorthanded pass defense.
And this has led to Football Outsiders currently ranking the SF 49ers defense 11th overall in defensive DVOA.
Not bad, considering all the challenges Saleh has had to face this season.
Yes, Saleh has made some mistakes this year. The decision to start cornerback Brian Allen, a player who had never seen a defensive snap in his career, in Week 5 against the Miami Dolphins was a bad one. It led to some harsh criticisms of the coordinator, and there’s an argument they were deserved. At least in that particular case.
But in terms of the grand scheme of work, Saleh’s efforts this year have been quite exemplary.
It’s still not clear what the head-coaching landscape will look like in 2021. Perhaps the Atlanta Falcons, who fired head coach Dan Quinn earlier this season, would be interested. Maybe the Houston Texans, who finally parted ways with their former head coach, Bill O’Brien. It’s also anyone’s guess what other teams like the Detroit Lions or New York Jets, whose coaches are arguably on the hot seat, will do either.
Still, if any of those teams are looking for an impassioned and rising defensive-minded head coach for their ranks in 2021, Saleh’s ascent and ability to overcome some serious challenges would be worth considering.