Robert Saleh's defensive creativity paying dividends for 49ers
SANTA CLARA — Three hours before every 49ers game, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh runs the stadium stairs. He runs up and down, up and down the concrete steps and around the entire field. And as he goes, he takes a leap of faith into the absurd and unknown.
“I visualize the entire game,” Saleh said. “I visualize every call I’m going to make. I visualize the calls the other team will make. I try to visualize my adjustments and their adjustments. This calms me and keeps me sane.”
Saleh sees what isn’t there. He is a knight of faith, as Soren Kierkegaard would say.
“There are two types of people in the world,” Saleh explained. “There are those who need to see something happen before they actually believe it can happen. And then there are those who live in faith, and those are the ones who see things happen before they ever have a chance to happen. And those are the people who, in my opinion, have a greater chance of maximizing who they are, because there’s no cap to what they’re capable of.”
So far this season, things have worked out exactly how Saleh envisioned. The 49ers are 8-0 and his defense has allowed a microscopic 12.8 points per game. Quite a turnaround from 2018, when the 49ers went 4-12 and Saleh’s defense gave up a whopping 27.2 points per game.
No one could have foreseen such a drastic turnaround for the defense. His faith has been rewarded.
Saleh has made his vision come true, and he has become someone many consider the NFL’s best defensive coordinator by staying true to his principles.
A defensive inventor
When the 49ers hired Saleh in 2017, he didn’t bring his own system. He brought the system Pete Carroll created with the Seattle Seahawks. Saleh worked for the Seahawks as an assistant coach from 2011 to 2013. He was a Carroll system coach, and that’s one of the reasons the 49ers hired him.
Carroll’s system appealed to the 49ers, because it’s strong against the run. And in 2016, the season before the 49ers hired Saleh, their defense ranked 32nd in rushing yards allowed. Dead last. His first task was to fix the run defense.
Carroll’s system always puts eight defenders in the box to stop the run. There are five defenders on the line of scrimmage — basically a wall of people — and two linebackers and one strong safety right behind them. The free safety lines up deep in the middle of the field.
Using Carroll’s system, Saleh succeeded in stopping the run. In 2017, his defense gave up 3.8 yards per carry. And in 2018, it gave up 4.1 yards per carry. Excellent averages.
But the 49ers defense still gave up lots of points, and struggled to defend the pass in a quarterback-driven league. He needed to adjust and build a new system, and he did.
This offseason, he installed the “Wide 9,” which puts four defenders on the line of scrimmage instead of five. It helps to defend the pass, but the gaps between these four defenders on the line of scrimmage are huge.
“The mentality is we are playing the pass first and reacting to the run,” head coach Kyle Shanahan explained.
The 49ers have recorded 30 sacks in eight games — second most in the NFL. And they have given up 4.7 yards per carry — 10th most in the league. They have weakened their run defense just enough to improve their pass defense, and the tradeoff has worked beautifully.