Next to the Head Coaching position, the Defensive Coordinator is probably the most important and scrutinized position on the coaching staff. Niners Live evaluates the defense under Robert Saleh’s reign; through the injuries, the midseason transactions, personnel changes and most importantly, through the first ten games of the season.
It’s not a stretch to say that many of the coaches from the 2013 Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks punched in their tickets for high profile jobs. Robert Saleh is no exception to that philosophy. He worked as the Defensive Quality Control coach, with a special focus on the linebacking core led by Bobby Wagner. Saleh parlayed those results into the Linebacker Coach position with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the next three seasons. As one of the architects of the 4-3 defensive alignments, Saleh was a hot commodity this offseason before ultimately being hired as the Defensive Coordinator position for the San Francisco 49ers. He has had a Topsy-turvy season, to say the least.
Injuries have Reared their Ugly Head
At the beginning of training camp, the world was gushing at the potentially great year this defense could have. After all, there were three Pro-Bowlers (Bowman, Smith and Reid) in the starting unit; two 6’7” bookends on the front four (Buckner and Armstead), a highly touted rookie in Solomon Thomas, and the steal of the draft in Reuben Foster. Prognosticators predicted a top 10 defense from San Francisco in 2017, but from the start of training camp, the hits and list of casualties just kept on coming. It started with Malcolm Smith and skyrocketed with season-ending injuries to Jimmie Ward, Arik Armstead and Jaquiski Tartt. There have been stints of recovery for Eric Reid, Tank Carradine, Reuben Foster, K’Waun Williams , Aaron Lynch and Solomon Thomas. You combine these factors with the release of Navorro Bowman; arguably the heart and soul of the team, and trading away Rashard Robinson, and you can say Robert Saleh has been up against it.
Where Is The Pass Rush?
Call it a blanket statement if you must, but the San Francisco 49ers haven’t had a consistent pass-rusher since the days of Aldon Smith. Currently, Elvis Dumervil leads the team with 4.5 sacks (per Pro Football Focus). The 2nd highest total is 2 sacks, an honor shared by three players: Solomon Thomas, Leger Douzable, who joined the starting unit only two weeks ago, and Ronald Blair, who achieved that total against the Giants this past Sunday (via 49ers.com). The 4-3 system was supposed to make it easier for sack opportunities, but instead, the 49ers have managed a total of only 20 sacks in a 10 game span. Some of that can be blamed on personnel and poor tackling, but when it happens on a weekly basis, coaching has to come into question.
Pass Coverage You Say?
Currently, the 49ers rank as the 23rd worst passing defense in the NFL (via ESPN.com), giving up 246 yards per game and a total of 18 touchdowns (tied for 6th worst in the NFL). Part of this is due to Saleh gambling big time on Former 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson; whom, when he wasn’t getting torched repeatedly, was busy being flagged for pass interference or defensive holding. Together, Robinson and Dontae Johnson have been the victims of poor angles, which offenses have repeatedly exposed. But it hasn’t been just the cornerbacks, K’Waun Williams was rated as the worst coverage defensive back this season and has repeatedly had coverage softer than a feathered pillow each and every week. This was on full display during the humiliating defeat at home against the Dallas Cowboys. The safety position has probably been the most reliable part of the secondary, although Saleh has had to induce a constant change in the personnel, with Reid, Tartt and Ward. With those three missing significant time, Saleh has had to turn to a variety of options, which recently included rookie Adrian Colbert. While Colbert and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon received playing time as of late, only time will tell if they have the stuff to become starters at their respective positions in the future. Needless to say, if Saleh’s tenure is to continue, major changes will be at the forefront.
Run, Run, Run…Other teams have
The San Francisco 49ers rank 31st in rushing defense while being tied for the 6th most rushing touchdowns (9) and an average of 133.5 yards per game and a total of 1,335 yards (the 2nd worst in the NFL) at 4 yards per attempt. So how did this happen? One name, Tank Carradine. Before his injury, the 49ers had not given up a single 100-yard game to a running back this season. Yet, the partners that have accompanied Earl Mitchell in Carradine’s absence (Thomas, Leger Douzable among them) have left holes wider than the Mississippi River, the likes which were pleasing to Ezekiel Elliott, Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley and LaGarrette Blount, among others. While the linebackers have led the team in tackles at times this season, it has unfortunately been at the expense of a gain of 5 yards or higher. Opponents have dictated the line of scrimmage, thus controlled the clock, which wore down this defense over time.
Nowhere to go but Up
When you rank 27th in total defense, you have to operate under the premise that it can only get better. To be fair, the defense has actually kept the team in close contention during much of the regular season. Robert Saleh has operated with personnel that, in many respects, are still finding their way with the 4-3 scheme. There have been a few head-scratching moments on defense this season and there are bound to be a few more in the 6 remaining games in 2017. There is this caveat: Each team Saleh has coached showed dramatic improvement in subsequent years. We are starting to see Reuben Foster consistently involved near the football and DeForest Buckner continues to be a force against opposing tackles. There are building blocks in place, but the question remains, can Saleh use those blocks and build a defense that will become the envy of the NFL? So far, we give him a grade of incomplete.
Please join us again soon on Niners Live, the home of the faithful fan and analyst from an objective/analytical lens, of course.
All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Niners Live Contributor Dave E. Co-Author, Content Creator, Editor, Sequoia Sims