Saleh needs one final masterpiece from his guys
MIAMI >> To execute complex defensive gameplans, to ensure that every player understands pre-snap assignments and to make last-second, on-field adjustments, NFL defenders need excellent communication skills.
During the 2019 season, a ferocious 49ers’ defense was almost always on the same page. Master storyteller Robert Saleh, the man in charge of the defensive playbook, made sure of it.
“You’re trying to tell them a story of what we need to do and what they’re trying to do,” Saleh, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, said last week. “So it’s, ‘What is this offense really trying to accomplish? What are they trying to accomplish when they look like this versus another formation or whatever it may be?’”
In his third year leading the defense under head coach Kyle Shanahan, Saleh rose to prominence by overseeing one of
the NFL’s best units. The 49ers finished the regular season ranked second in team defense, second in third-down percentage and eighth in scoring defense.
A year after the 49ers ranked 28th in scoring defense and the team finished last in the NFL in turnover margin, Saleh’s job security was questioned by national analysts. Now, a team that wasn’t necessarily equipped to execute Saleh’s gameplans can make the ultimate statement against superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I know he came in here with a very good philosophy on what he believed in,” Shanahan said. “We weren’t always ready to do all of that stuff which forces you to adjust as a coach. When you’re forced to adjust, it only helps you grow.”
Saleh’s growth has been an oft-discussed topic this season as a vaunted pass-rush has wreaked havoc on quarterbacks while a stronger secondary helped the 49ers finish the year with the league’s No. 1 ranked passing defense.
49ers defensive backs and defensive linemen alike say the defense has thrived because the rush and coverage are in sync, but that’s not simply the result of having better personnel. Veteran defensive tackle DeForest Buckner credits Saleh for taking input from players who have allowed his philosophies to evolve.
“He’s a really good coach with listening to players’ ideas and everything,” Buckner said. “Listening to him and putting it into the gameplan. He’s one of those coaches who is a really approachable guy. He’ll hear things out, bounce ideas off of you.”