49ers: How New DC Robert Saleh should Utilize his Defensive Talent.

Niners Live again pushes the envelope and presents the third installment of the three-part series: How New DC Robert Saleh should Utilize his “Secondary” Defensive Talent.


The vision

Allow me to lead with this to set the tone moving forward. Say what you want about new General Manager John Lynch, but he’s doing well turning the 49ers around. He brings dawg mentality, attitude and the high standards necessary to produce greatness while demanding the diligent work ethic and self-discipline required to restore this organization to its former glory. He definitely has the “dawgs only” vision as recently discussed on Niners Live.

Take a look at his quote from a draft edition of Monday Morning Quarterback in which he stated, “People that know me well know I’m not into a whole lot of promises, but I will make a few. We’re gonna put together and assemble a team, and how long that takes, we don’t know. But we’re gonna assemble a team that’ll make you proud. I can promise you this, we’re gonna have players that are gonna compete.”

That statement alone speaks volumes and I’m excited for what’s to come. His approach resonates with me on a personal level because I use this same type approach as a youth football coach (defensive coordinator). Of course, I’m at the youth level so I just can’t up and send kids home. Instead, I groom them to strive to continually bring their best to the field and everywhere else in life, to never settle for less than 100%, and most importantly, I enhance what they do well and work on their areas of weakness. This type of mental conditioning and approach breeds excellence and allows you to reach your players. It weeds out any individuals that don’t quite have that “dawg” mentality in them. Let’s be honest, some don’t have it in them to operate like that. You know, that relentless, fearless, never quit or backdown regardless of how the game is going mentality. So yes, Coach Mitchell approves this message.

Either come to play and put forth max effort, or nothing at all. It’s simple. John Lynch has drafted dawg mentality players to pair with those already on the roster. There’s dawgs in the front seven and the secondary. Stay in the car with me, (keep reading) and by the time we get to your destination you’ll have a better understanding of why I see things the way I do through this lens.

The recipe and sorting the groceries:

 Yes, yes, now let’s talk about these dawgs in the secondary that’ll compliment and back up them dawgs in the front seven. See, the problem is this roster has been both overworked and misused, per say. I say overworked because for so long there was a lack of dawgs in the front seven to stop the run or get any pressure on the quarterback. You know just as I do, no pressure up front and the inability to get upfield push and fill gaps leads to a heavy workload for everyone involved. That means dawgs on the back end must work twice as hard to make plays (playing coverage and making tackles at the third level), and when they do, those plays are overshadowed by the terrible play upfront.

Inventory: The Secondary

Rashard Robinson is the only early lock at one cornerback spot. The number two cornerback spot is still up for grabs, even with the addition of Ahkello Witherspoon. He will more than likely need time to develop and increase his physicality. It seems most have all but forgotten about one of the best-proven cover men on this roster, Dontae Johnson. Johnson is a 6’2 200 lb. dawg. He is physical, can cover, tackle and has good speed. I don’t think he’s been given a fair shot to exercise that dawg in him, but I think that may change here soon, with the open competition and “dawgs only’ type mentality. The current frontrunner to play single high safety is Jimmie Ward. Returning players like Ward, Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Will Redmond will have the opportunity to show the world the true dawgs they are. Just sit back and watch. This is what I foresee in the secondary in a base 4-3/4-3 under set:

  • Left cornerback – Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser, Ahkello Witherspoon
  • Right cornerback – Rashard Robinson, Will Redmond, Adrian Colbert
  • Nickel cornerback – Will Redmond, K’Waun Williams
  • Single high safety – Jimmie Ward, Adrian Colbert
  • Strong safety – Eric Reid, Jaquiski Tartt. Chancellor James

The above group is interchangeable, but multiple dawgs on this list can make plays. With the right personnel groupings, this secondary group can be dangerous along with the defense as a collective unit. The 49ers have the talent to employ a 4-2-5 (four linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs) look on defense to maximize their talent and production (multiple dawgs on the field at the same time). Adrian Colbert, Chancellor James, Lorenzo Jerome and Malik Golden are all dawgs that bring different skill sets and value to this secondary.

While they won’t all make the final roster, those that do will provide quality depth on special teams and in this 49ers’ secondary. Just as the front seven will be interesting to watch develop in terms of working together, the same can be said for this secondary full of young, hungry and opportunistic dawgs eager to contribute and show they belong on this team. Competition breeds excellence. This group of dawgs in the secondary will be fun to watch.

Important to note: While ranking 32nd in team defense in 2016, the 49ers ranked 19th in passing defense, which is nine spots higher than their 27th ranked passing defense in the previous 2015 season (Sports Football Reference). With the added pass rushers to the front seven, the 49ers are in a position to improve in both categories this upcoming 2017 season.

Dinner is served, let’s eat:

If this group is pushed and coached properly and allowed to play to full potential, look out. I see this group telling the front seven something like this, “Do what you do upfront and get to the quarterback, if you can’t quite get there, force the ball out before he wants to, and we’ll do our jobs by making him pay and getting the ball back for you!” Okay, there’s a lot of my inner dawg in that quote, but I’m sure it’s similar.

To be objective, the abundance of talent and potential on this 49ers’ roster has yet to translate to game reps, so we’ll have to wait and see. But I’m very optimistic. With an improved pass rush, the cornerbacks can play physical at the line of scrimmage and on the edge and maintain decent coverage. They will improve the teams 19th ranked pass defense of 2016 as well as improve against the run and rushing the passer to create much-needed turnovers.  Earlier I told you to stay in the car with me and by the time we got to the destination you would have a better understanding of things seen through this lens. Well, we are here, and these 49ers are coming. I hope you enjoyed this written Uber ride. GO NINERS!!!!

As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.

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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Kevin Mitchell Staff Writer at Niners Live. Co-Author, Editor NinersLive.

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