The SF 49ers are losing Robert Saleh to the NY Jets’ head-coaching vacancy, and his ability to change his scheme was a key reason why.
It would have been easy for soon-to-be former SF 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to stick to his roots after taking over that position with the Niners way back in 2017 as a first-time coordinator.
Fans will remember how Saleh implemented a 4-3 Under, Cover 3 zone-style scheme — a system he was familiar with from his days with the Seattle Seahawks under head coach Pete Carroll and then-defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. It sounded like a good idea. After all, Bradley and Carroll helped engineer one of the most dominant defensive units in the early 2010s, and Saleh was hoping to replicate that in San Francisco.
The only problem, though, was the SF 49ers simply didn’t have the talent to make it work back in 2017. And with only some modest tweaks in 2018, it wasn’t working that much the following year either.
In 2018, the Niners defense was respectable enough in yards allowed (5,546 — 13th best) but still gave up a lot of points, not unlike the 2020 squad which dealt with a slew of offensive turnovers regularly putting Saleh’s defense into bad situations. But points allowed his second year (435) was still not great.
They might be quiet now, but many fans after Saleh’s first two years weren’t overly impressed with his efforts and wanted him gone.
Well, he’ll be gone now. But not for that original reason. Saleh is leaving to become the NY Jets’ next head coach because he was able to adjust like all good coaches are able to do.
One of the problems with Seattle’s Cover 3-like defense is it was designed to essentially stack the box with eight defenders regularly, thereby relying on the pure one-on-one coverage skills of top-level defensive backs. The Seahawks’ former “Legion of Boom” had those players, including current SF 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who were all elite in one way or another. As the NFL continued its transition away from a high-number of run-heavy teams towards a more pass-happy league, Cover 3 defenses became obsolete.
Especially if teams didn’t have the back-end talent to make it work.
That’s why so many things changed in 2019 when the Niners boasted one of the league’s best defenses.
Saleh took advice from his coaching staff at the time, including former defensive backs coach Joe Woods along with newly minted defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and his former assistant, Chris Kiffin. Key among the adjustments were moving to a Wide 9 base alignment for the D-line while implementing more traditional Cover 2 schemes with both safeties playing deep.
This was a noticeable transition from the single-high Cover 3 scheme Saleh previously used.
On top of that, to take advantage of linebacker Fred Warner‘s exceptional coverage skills, Saleh didn’t hesitate to use more Tampa 2 coverages with Warner dropping back between the Cover 2 safeties in the middle of the field.
The approach worked, and it was magnified even more in 2020 despite San Francisco losing a number of key pieces to injury over the course of the season.
The SF 49ers gave up a lot of points, yes, 390 in total, which ranked 17th best. But Saleh’s defense, despite yet another season where the offense turned the ball over a whopping 31 times, still ranked fifth best in yards allowed (5,030).
There are two key takeaways from all this.
For starters, Saleh showed he wasn’t too stubborn to stick with what he knew best back in 2017. He changed and evolved, just like the league changes and evolves. On top of that, Saleh took the advice and listened to his subordinates’ ideas. That’s key, too, meaning Saleh is open to new ideas if they can end up helping his team.
Now, Saleh will need even more advice and assistance, as he’ll be undergoing yet another transformation with a Jets squad in need of a massive overhaul.
But if the previous evidence reveals anything, he’ll be more than capable of meeting the challenge.