SANTA CLARA — And the winner of the prestigious 49ers Coach of the Year Award, which I just made up, goes to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
This was no easy decision. Head coach Kyle Shanahan was a serious candidate. But Shanahan has Jimmy Garoppolo, and Saleh has only half a defense.
Before I explain about the defense, let me explain about Garoppolo.
He, not Shanahan, is the main reason the offense has performed well lately. Before Garoppolo became the starting quarterback, the 49ers ranked 28th out of 32 teams in points scored. Not good.
The past three games with Garoppolo at QB, the 49ers rank fifth in points scored. He’s the difference on offense.
Saleh is the difference on defense.
Since the bye week, the 49ers defense has given up a respectable 22 points per game even though it’s nowhere near complete.
It’s just a run defense. The best players line up at defensive tackle (DeForest Buckner, Earl Mitchell, Solomon Thomas) and linebacker (Reuben Foster). That’s the middle of the defense. The core.
The Niners run defense has been among the best in the NFL since the bye. It has allowed only 3.3 yards per carry, and it hasn’t allowed a team to rush for more than 92 yards in five consecutive games. The Niners haven’t been this good against the run since 2011 when Vic Fangio was coaching the defense and Justin Smith and Patrick Willis were in their prime.
That 2011 defense was complete. It could stop the run and pass. In addition to Smith and Willis, it had a dominant edge rusher — Aldon Smith — and a Pro Bowl cornerback — Carlos Rogers.
Saleh’s defense doesn’t have its version of Aldon Smith and Carlos Rogers. Doesn’t have talented defensive ends and cornerbacks. Isn’t equipped to defend an NFL passing attack.
It’s a partial defense.
Saleh knows this.
“When people talk about building a really good defense,” Saleh said Thursday, “you get those guys in the middle of your defense (first). That’s good enough to get you to third down. Corners and edge rushers are what get you off the field. They’re the ones that get you off in two-minute (situations). They’re the ones that win in the red zone.
“We get to third down very, very easily. We need to learn how to close the door on third-and-12 where there is zero chance an offense can get a first down. Two-minute situations where even if we’re rushing four and (the offense is) trying to bleed the clock, we’re still capable of getting off the field because the edge rush and the corners are just straight lock down.”
The lack of lock-down corners and edge rushers defines the limit of Saleh’s defense. As well as it has played against the run, it continues to struggle against the pass and on third down and in the red zone.
Since the bye, the 49ers defense has allowed an average opponent quarterback rating of 91.6 (not good), a third-down conversion percentage of 39.3 (also not good) and a red-zone touchdown percentage of 84.6 (really not good).
If only the Niners had more than half a defense.