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

Niners Live takes an in-depth approach while breaking down how new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh should utilize his defensive talent in 2017.


Ah yes, the coaching staff is set, so who will be named defensive coordinator (DC) is no longer a mystery. In case you missed it, Robert Saleh is now the DC in San Francisco. What remains a mystery, though, is just how Robert Saleh will utilize, and more importantly maximize and evaluate, his talent. As daunting a task as converting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 is, evaluating talent and playing the best 11 is even more daunting.

Before we dig too deep into the 4-3 background of Saleh, let’s first look at the personnel he has available. Niners Live recently mentioned the possibilities of a 3-4/4-3 could be endless and gave an in-depth assessment of the fundamental differences and advantages/disadvantages of a 3-4/4-3. But this time, we’ll focus more on the talent Saleh has on hand and how he may, and possibly should, maximize said talent.

Let’s take a look at some of the 49ers talents within the front seven (four defensive lineman and three linebackers), and also the secondary Robert Saleh has to available to him. 

Note the recap: Saleh and Kyle Shanahan have been on record saying he’ll run a 4-3 (via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee). He’ll also have an outside linebacker (OLB) at the line of scrimmage at times, so his 4-3 will often look like a 5-2 (five defensive linemen and two linebackers), also known as a 4-3 under. A 4-3 resembles a 5-2 defense. It under aligns the linebacker at the line of scrimmage just outside the defensive end in a seven technique, also known as the D gap (outside the tight end), as an extra pass rusher or a bootleg, counter or reverse (BCR) player/contain player.

Arik Armstead:

The first of two bookend defensive lineman to be drafted first overall out of Oregon, Arik Armstead is more familiar with the 3-4 defensive end because that’s what he played in college. From his defensive end spot, Armstead can be a major factor in Robert Saleh’s new 4-3 scheme. Initially, some considered both Armstead and Buckner a shoe-in to slide inside to a 2 technique (defensive tackle lined up over a guard) in the new look.

On a Niners Live side note: We’ve previously discussed: Will the New DC Maximize Arik Armstead’s Full Potential? and a recap of his first two years in the NFL. And an in-depth breakdown on new acquisition DT Earl Mitchell, only on Niners Live, of course.

Now back to the business at hand:

As a known and fundamental rule, defensive lineman are taught to put their arms up if they can’t get to the quarterback. At 6’7 and coming off the edge in the direct line of sight of opposing quarterbacks, Armstead could see a spike in his batted ball stat along with others. Contrary to popular belief, sacks aren’t the only stat that matters, or that helps a defense when attempting to get pressure off the edge. Hurries, knockdowns, and even batted balls are all stats that, when achieved, count as wasted downs for offenses at the least, and at best, turnovers.

You really think Armstead isn’t explosive? Think again (watch video).

Despite that injuries have limited his potential, when healthy, Armstead has the quickness, length, and awareness that disrupts the design of offensive plays and provides much-needed quarterback pressure so once again, the 49ers’ defense will look more like an NFL defense. Though he hasn’t been known as a sack artist, with the right scheme and coaching, Armstead has the ability and potential to become known as a true anchor and production artist in his defensive end position on this reshuffled 49er defensive line.

DeForest Buckner:

The second, and the more dominant piece of the 49ers bookend defensive lineman, is DeForest Buckner. At 6’7 290 lbs., he is freakishly strong and possesses a long wingspan. As he shifts inside to defensive tackle, Defo, as he’s known by teammates and fans, will be a very moldable, no coachable piece at his new 2 or 3 technique (head up over the guard or just off the guards outside shoulder) spot as an interior defensive lineman.

Despite 10 sacks his senior year at Oregon from the 3-4 defensive end spot, DeForest Buckner could very well see respectable sack totals, and even possibly decent tackles for loss numbers playing inside. Now, I’ll be the first to admit he didn’t impress early in the season from the 3-4 defensive end spot of the 49ers, but he did improve as the season progressed. Pad level (coming off the ball too high), and being overly aggressive (coming too far up field outside trying to produce sacks) hurt his production early on.

Once he locked in and began to accept coaching, maintained a strong base, didn’t let the offensive lineman get into his body, and set the edge at the C gap while closing it down and keeping his outside arm free, he began to flourish. Prior to his improvement, Buckner would often come off the ball and go up the field so fast running backs would allow him to take himself out the play by getting too far upfield, and then they’d run underneath him through the B gap.

Unfortunately, injuries to NaVorro Bowman and Ray-Ray Armstrong were huge blows to the defense and how well Defo played mid to late season. Without the two best linebackers on the field running downhill and filling gaps, teams began to ring up record-setting numbers on the 49ers defense, and Buckner’s production meant almost nothing.

Not to be forgotten or known as an underachiever, Buckner made a name for himself by finishing the season with six sacks and also by being effective in stuffing the run inside through the B gap (between the guard and tackle) and on the edge closing off the C gap (outside the tackle), and by running down plays and players that came his way. Pending a build off his improvement from last season, DeFo will be a dominant force at his new two technique inside. His long reach, strength, the combination of power and finesse moves and knack of reading plays and finding the ball should bode well for him as an individual, and the 49ers as a defensive unit.

Quinton Dial:

Dial was one of the more dominant, run-stuffing defensive tackles while at the University of Alabama (NFL.com), and now he will be back home playing a traditional 2 technique as a 4-3 defensive tackle. He should benefit from the switch.

In 2016 with the 49ers, Quinton Dial regressed in a sense, when you compare his 2015 season when he amassed the following stats (Pro footballfocus.com).

– 59 tackles which rank 13th in the NFL among interior linemen

– 2.5 sacks

– two block field goals

– started a career-high 15 games

– graded 71.3 against the run

– 72.5 in pass rush

Dial was playing out of position lining up as a 0 technique, (head up over the center) dedicated nose tackle instead of a defensive tackle, so even though he’s shown flashes of greatness and the ability to make plays, he was unable to reach his full potential.

At 6’5 318 lbs., he was undersized for a nose tackle where he was playing out of position in the middle taking on a center instead of a guard. Though the 49ers did run a nickel look in which he played defensive tackle, he still didn’t make a lot of plays. The lack of production wasn’t entirely his fault, though, especially this last season in 2016. Considering all Dial and the defense were asked to do while missing the proper pieces, scheme and playing out of position for most of his snaps, it’s not hard to understand why this defense has struggled the way he has over the past few years.

Not to mention injuries to both himself and other key cogs on defense had an adverse, ripple effect on personnel and team production. Moving forward in this new scheme, though, I do feel Quinton Dial will finally be able to be the impactful defensive lineman the 49ers drafted him to be, and demand double teams while being a force to be reckoned with along this retooled defensive line.

Tank Carradine/Aaron Lynch/Eli Harold, Ronald Blair:

Okay, if you’ve truly been locked into this article and the contents of it, first of all, I thank you for doing so and investing your time in reading this. Secondly, you’ve probably noticed and may be wondering why I grouped these four players together versus doing individual breakdowns as I did earlier in the article with Arik Armstead, DeForrest Buckner, and Quinton Dial. Well, allow me to explain.

What could Eli Harold do in a 4/3 scheme? You had to ask huh? (Please see video).

Tank CarradineEli HaroldAaron Lynch, and Ronald Blair all have one thing in common. Well, two, if you count they played defensive end in college. The one thing in common they share is what I like to call the, “do you” factor. In layman’s terms, you can line them up at defensive end and tell them to do you. Do you, meaning do what you do best and go get the quarterback.

All four of these guys are natural pass rushers off the edge playing defensive end and have similar attributes and skill sets to a certain degree. Very good football players with great pass rushing instincts. That skill set being: line up in the 5 technique, get the jump off the edge and sack, or hurry, the quarterback and even record tackles for loss if you catch the runner or ball carrier in the backfield. You can truly just line these guys up and cut them loose.

While writing this article I personally came to the conclusion that I don’t see the 49ers as a 2-14 team with their level of talent. And, in fact, General Manger John Lynch echoed those same sentiments when he said, “I can also tell you (that) I don’t look up at the film we’ve been watching and see a 2-14 team,” he said on KNBR radio Wednesday. The San Francisco 49ers are much better on defense than the terrible numbers show, or would suggest (32nd overall defense via NFL.com). As aforementioned, and most importantly, they can now “set the edge” and get to the quarterback by running a 4-3.

Jimmie Ward/Jaquiski Tartt:

Yep, I grouped these two together because they both are best on the back end in the secondary as recently discussed on Niners LiveJimmie Ward is best at free safety where he can watch everything develop in front of him and can use his unique skill set to read, react, and dissect plays from the safety position versus playing zone or man coverage at CB or nickel back. While Ward was one of the 49ers’ best CB’s last season, his rookie season wasn’t the best as he is undersized. He lines up against 6’2 and taller wide receivers and he has experienced some growing pains as he settled into the position of his nickel back role on the team. With the defense now switching to a 4/3 and potential added QB pressure his talents can, and will be, on full display lining up at free safety.

Jaquiski Tartt aka the “heat seeking missile” also possesses a very sought after skill set since he can play both strong safety and a stack LB closer to the line of scrimmage in run support. If used properly, Tartt can be a Kam Chancellor type player on this defense. He has the athleticism, speed, and instincts to play strong safety. In addition, he’s big and physical enough to strike fear into the hearts of pass catchers coming across the middle as they may have their chinstraps knocked loose by his hits. He can also play as an extra linebacker in the box helping play the run.

Now, may I leave you with this?

Sometimes change (especially when change is warranted due to personnel) is both good and necessary, and the misuse of talent is just as bad if not worse than little to no talent. The change that has occurred in San Francisco is the bulk of the coaching staff, front office, quarterback, and switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3. The misuse of talent has been a huge detriment to this 49ers team and has even handicapped the entire franchise, organization and fan base the past few seasons. Between players playing out of position (due to the defensive scheme/philosophy), potential draft approach, and improper use of talent (not playing to the strengths of the players), this once top tier defense is now closer to the bottom, if not at the bottom, of the barrel of the NFL.

This is where sound coaching comes into play and makes a difference.

Players like Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine, Aaron Lynch, and Eli Harold have all been playing out of position since joining the 49ers. In addition, there has been a lack of quality position coaches, improper scheme/inflexibility of players, and poor overall coaching. All these issues come together to exemplify and amplify the problems and holes in the 49ers once prolific and proud defense.

While NaVorro Bowman and Ray Ray Armstrong are set to return to the field and continue their stellar play with Bowman at middle linebacker and Armstrong at weak side (WIL) linebacker, the 49ers could benefit from adding another inside linebacker to grow under and be groomed by Bowman. They would also benefit by adding a strong-side (SAM) linebacker to complete the trio.

With the unique blend of talent, variety of different skill sets, and possible additions via free agency or the draft, Robert Saleh has the rare opportunity and means to revitalize this San Francisco defense by maximizing the talent and allowing his players to fully utilize and hone their talents.

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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 new Staff Writer at Niners Live. Co-Author, Editor NinersLive.