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Robert Saleh's defensive creativity paying dividends for 49ers

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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.

Saleh no longer is a mere system coach. He is a football coach. Credit the improvement to faith.

Master of disguise

Saleh’s new scheme allows him to disguise pass coverages before the snap, something that separates him from the Carroll approach.

Carroll’s system historically has not disguised coverages. His system requires eight defenders in the box, and five on the line of scrimmage. So, the strong safety always has to play in the box to be the eighth defender, and the free safety always has to line up in the middle of the field like a center fielder. There are basically two coverages defenses can run from this alignment — single-high zone coverage, and single-high man-to-man coverage. Meaning the free safety is on his own. Simple stuff.

By switching to the Wide 9, Saleh has freed up the strong safety to move around the field, so he no longer always has to stay in the box. He can line up in the box before the play, then drop to cover a deep zone after the snap and confuse the quarterback.

Saleh’s pass coverages have become much more sophisticated and complex.

“Watching last year to this year,” Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said, “Saleh has evolved with his personnel, you’re seeing more two-high zone coverages,”

In 2018, the 49ers’ simplistic pass defense gave up an average quarterback rating of 105.4. This season, the upgraded pass defense has allowed an average quarterback rating of just 65.7.

Saleh has made all the right adjustments.

Getting creative

He also designs creative blitzes. The defense benefits big time from the offseason addition of two excellent edge rushers — Dee Ford and Nick Bosa. But Saleh doesn’t just depend on them.

So far this season, 10 defenders have recorded at least half of a sack. Saleh frequently uses his best defensive linemen as decoys to create easy sacks for linebackers or safeties.

And he did exactly that against the Cleveland Browns. On the first third down of the game, Saleh lined up Dee Ford and DeForest Buckner next to each other on the right side of the defensive line, then dropped Ford into coverage and blitzed a linebacker and a nickel back from the left side of the formation.

“Saleh knew it was going to be a sack,” Richard Sherman said. “If you stand Ford and DeFo on one side, you know exactly how the protection will react. And Saleh blitzed from the other side. It was an outstanding call. He deserves a ton of credit.”

Saleh also designs clever four-man rushes.

Saleh doesn’t have to blitz to show ingenuity. Sometimes, he simply puts Buckner at nose tackle and rushes four players.

Making Buckner a nose tackle is bold, because he is the 49ers’ best defender, and nose tackle is not a glamorous position, rarely sacking the quarterback. Saleh plays Buckner at nose tackle, because no center in the league can block him.

Saleh knows the opposing offense automatically must double-team Buckner with a center and guard. Meaning the offense can’t double-team anyone else. Saleh sacrifices his best player to give the rest of his defensive linemen one-on-one matchups. That’s why Buckner ranks fourth on the team in sacks behind Bosa, Ford and Arik Armstead. But he makes their sacks possible.

“Buckner is everything you want out of a professional,” Saleh said. “His opportunities are going to come.”

Unifying force

His players play with extreme effort and unity. And they always have.

“The thing that has been consistent,” Kingsbury said of the 49ers’ defense, “even last year, is the effort. As a coach, you appreciate how hard Saleh has those guys playing. When one player makes a sack, they’re all excited for him. They’re playing as one. It’s not easy to build that culture in this league when you’re bringing in new players and free agents year in and year out.”

Saleh’s players mirror his personality during games. Saleh preaches “extreme violence” — that’s one of his mantras. After a particularly good or violent play, he screams and pumps his fists on the sideline, and his face turns scarlet. The players love his passion.

Off the field, Saleh is a completely different person. He’s demanding, but soft-spoken. He is a teacher. Shanahan calls him Gandhi. The players respect this side of Saleh as well.

“There are five things we do as a coaching staff to make sure we are putting the players in positions to succeed,” Saleh said. “We show it to them on paper. We show it to them on film. We give it to them in a walk-through setting. We give it to them in their individual setting when we’re doing individual drills in practice. And then we give it to them in a live rep.

“And if we can cover those five things, then we feel like the player should be able to operate. And if he’s still not getting it, I get agitated. But I don’t ever yell, because the player has earned the respect of the coach to continue coaching him.”

Call it a faith-based system. Call the 49ers 8-0.

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