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.