Shanahan Pleased by Progress of Saleh's Defense

Niners' head coach believes rookie defensive coordinator showed in 2017 that his unit will continue to improve

Before last season, Robert Saleh had never been a defensive coordinator. When Kyle Shanahan plucked Saleh out of his box of candidates to lead the defense, Saleh was linebackers coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Some wondered if Saleh had the chops to turn around a defense that had been historically bad in 2016.

Now, however, Saleh’s stock is on the rise. Though the 49ers had an 0-9 start in which the defense had some rough games, Shanahan loved the job his defensive coordinator did, and said late in the season that he had faith in what Saleh can do in the future for this team.

“Robert’s been great,” Shanahan said in late December. “I think he’s gotten better throughout the year and I think he’ll be even better next year. Robert’s got a great future ahead of him and I feel very fortunate that he’s the coordinator of the Niners.”

Even though the defense lost some key players through the year, Saleh’s unit improved and played its best football when the team won five straight and six of its last seven to finish 6-10.

As Nick Wagoner of noted this week, Saleh put his stamp on the defense, designing it with a Seahawks-style that emphasized quick reads, fast players and a strong safety playing close to the line of scrimmage for extra run support.

“By the end of the season, Saleh’s defense began showing signs of the type of fast, physical group he envisioned when he was hired,” wrote Wagoner.

The 49ers finished 24th in yards allowed per game in 2017 (351.6), 16th in yards allowed per play (5.28) and 25th in points allowed per game (23.94). But, noted Wagoner, defensive performance improved late in the year when the offense was more efficient under quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Reuben Foster was in the lineup at inside linebacker. With the offense on the field more, the defense was fresher and had a chance to do more things. Over the final five weeks, the 49ers ranked seventh in yards allowed (301.8), ninth in yards per play (4.96) and tied for ninth in points allowed per game (19.8).

Saleh says that he looks toward the 2018 season, he’s pleased with what his unit has accomplished but he wants to get much better.

“The last half of the season was cool just in terms of our guys really understanding what it is to be a ball-hawking defense,” said Saleh. “It’s about communicating so you’re on the same page so you can go faster. Then, the violence. Our guys are playing with great violence. When you dissect it play by play and just watch tape, they’re playing with a level of violence, especially in the run game, that would make anyone in the league very happy.”

Contact Us