Grant Cohn: 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh shows continued improvement

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It sounds crazy, but the 49ers will have a terrific opportunity Monday night.

Not to win. Forget winning. They almost surely will lose to the Green Bay Packers. But, that’s OK. With all the injuries the 49ers have had, they’re allowed to lose.

They still can grow, though. This game is a growth opportunity for them.

Even if the 49ers lose, they can strive not to beat themselves, not to commit turnovers, not to commit penalties, not to miss tackles, not to quit. They can establish a tough, disciplined identity. That goes for everyone on the team.

But, certain 49ers will have bigger opportunities to grow than others Monday night. Here’s who they are.

1. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

Of all the 49ers coaches, Saleh has improved the most the past two seasons.

He had no experience as a defensive coordinator when he came to the 49ers. He ran a carbon copy of the Seattle Seahawks defense. It was all he knew. The scheme was simple and basic. Saleh seemed to have no ideas of his own.

Now, he does. Now, he adapts his defensive philosophy to suit his players. Gives them the best chance to be successful, which is what good coaches do.

Here’s an example. Last season, Saleh used the same coverage almost every play — Cover 3. Three deep zone defenders, and four shallow zone defenders. As vanilla as it gets. Offenses knew what was coming.

This season, they don’t. Now, Saleh calls more types of coverages. He almost never calls Cover 3 on third down anymore. Instead, he calls Cover 2 (two deep zone defenders and five shallow zone defenders), or man to man with a blitz. He keeps the opposing offense guessing.

As a result, the 49ers defense has improved significantly. It ranks 10th in total yards allowed, and 16th in third-down defense. Last season, it ranked 24th in total yards allowed, and 30th in third-down defense.

Saleh will have one of his biggest tests Monday. He will face Aaron Rodgers, an all-time great quarterback.

Rodgers has a sprained knee. The Packers will put him in the shotgun and call quick, short passes to protect him, because he can’t move well.

Those quick passes can shred Cover 3, which requires cornerbacks to sprint deep downfield as soon as the play starts, leaving the flat wide open for easy Rodgers passes. Saleh must use a different coverage.

Cover 2 would work. It requires cornerbacks to stay in the flat after the snap to take away the quick, short passes.

Saleh knows Cover 2. Let’s see him call it Monday.

2. Pass-rush specialist Chris Kiffin.

Of all the 49ers coaches, Kiffin has shown the least since joining the team.

The 49ers signed Kiffin this offseason specifically to improve a pass rush that ranked 26th out of 32 teams in sacks last season. The 49ers recorded just 30.

Through five games, the 49ers are on pace to record 29 sacks. Meaning the pass rush has gotten worse under Kiffin’s direction.

Monday, he will face a quarterback who can’t move. Who tries to move, gets hit and fumbles. Rodgers fumbled twice last week.

Because Rodgers is gimpy, Kiffin shouldn’t make his defensive ends rush around the edge every play. Rodgers can avoid them simply by taking one or two steps forward in the pocket.

Instead, Kiffin should call “stunts.” That’s when a defensive end loops to the inside, past the center, and runs straight into the quarterback’s chest. The quarterback can’t step up to avoid a stunt. He must sprint laterally out of the pocket. These days, Rodgers is no sprinter.

Kiffin knows what stunts are. Let’s see him call them Monday.

3. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

He’s the mark, the guy the Packers will try to exploit.

They won’t go after Richard Sherman. That would be reckless and unnecessary. Instead, they will throw at Witherspoon until he forces them not to, or the 49ers bench him.

The Packers will be ruthless. They probably will make Witherspoon cover their No. 1 receiver, Davante Adams. What a giant test for the young cornerback. What a great opportunity.

Passing the test would give him major confidence.

4. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey.

The rookie first-round pick played well the past two weeks. But, he mostly blocked backups. Los Angeles Chargers starting defensive end Joey Bosa and Arizona Cardinals starting outside linebacker Markus Golden were injured and did not play.

Monday, McGlinchey won’t face a backup. He will face Clay Matthews almost the entire game. Matthews has 80.5 sacks in his career. He will show McGlinchey moves he never has seen.

If McGlinchey wins this matchup, he’s the real deal and the 49ers should move him to left tackle as soon as possible.

5. Head coach Kyle Shanahan.

This is his opportunity to grow as a head coach, and stop being an offensive coordinator obsessed with stats.

Shanahan is a stat-padder. He almost seems more concerned with improving his offensive numbers than winning. Last week, his offense racked up a season-high 447 yards. Based on that stat, you would have thought the 49ers offense played well last week.

It didn’t. It lost the game, because backup quarterback C.J. Beathard committed four turnovers. Shanahan made him drop back to throw 60 times. Put the game in his hands. Refused to mute the offense and win with his defense. Sinful.

This is Shanahan’s chance to atone.

Padding stats in a loss to the Packers won’t help build for the future. Shanahan needs to call an offensive game mindful of the players he has, not the players he wishes he has. Shanahan needs to bench his old, declining players, such as wide receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Garrett Celek, and play the younger players, even if doing so hurts the offensive production in the short term.

Look at the big picture, Kyle. Build a team that can win next season. Take your ego out of the offense. Make this trip to Green Bay a worthwhile and positive experience.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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