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Why I’m Excited About the Prospect of Robert Saleh

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-San Francisco 49ers vs Kansas City Chiefs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier today it was revealed that Robert Saleh was the first known finalist for the vacant Jets head coaching position. The team are flying the current San Francisco 49’ers defensive coordinator over for a second interview.

First of all, let's just hear from the current 49’ers head coach Kyle Shanahan...

“I will be very surprised if we don’t lose him. I don’t know what’s wrong with people if they don’t hire him. I mean, he’s as good as you can get and knows more about football, all three phases. And he’s going to hire the best staff. He knows about players. He knows who knows what they’re talking about. Who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And he also knows how to deal with people. So, I hope everyone’s not very smart and doesn’t hire them so I can keep him. But, I’m expecting not to have him. But, we’ve got a lot of other good guys on our staff and I know there’ll be a number of options and we’ve got a number of good players...So, I expect whatever we ended up deciding here. And obviously we’ll wait to see what happens with Saleh. But, I know that the Niners will be all right.”

Pretty high praise from a well-respected coach, and the part about hiring the best staff will be welcome news to any potential fanbase.

Saleh has been in the NFL since joining the Houston Texans as a defensive intern back in 2005. He’s worked under Gary Kubiak, Pete Carroll, Gus Bradley and now Kyle Shanahan.

In 2020, despite a number of injuries, the 49’ers finished as the 4th best passing defense, 5th best total defense, 7th best run defense and while his defense only forced 20 total turnovers, it was consistently hard to move the ball against his unit. At points in 2020 the 49’ers were the epitome of the walking wounded. He lost Nick Bosa, he lost Dee Ford, he lost DeForest Buckner, and still the 49’ers excelled.

One of the knocks on him was that he had good talent to work with, while that’s true, 2020 has shown his coaching ability to build players up.

He’s managed to get outstanding production from players like Ahkello Witherspoon (6th ranked CB in 2020), Fred Warner (1st ranked LB in 2020), even getting solid contributions out of players like Kerry Hyder.

When people say that Saleh just took Pete Carroll’s defense from Seattle, it’s true to a point. When he was hired by the 49’ers, he brought Carroll’s box defense concept in, mainly because the 49’ers were awful at defending the run. However one fix created another hole, as the 49’ers improved their run defense, their pass defense struggled. So that Pete Carroll defense had to be adapted, and that’s exactly what Saleh did.

Saleh’s new system now operates with the perfect balance between defending the pass and defending the run, he disguises coverages as good as anyone in the league, and he’s done this by freeing up the strong safety. His creation doesn’t just appear in coverage, it also appears in the way he dials up blitzes. In 2020 there were 13 players who had one sack or more.

When talking about Saleh’s defensive system, you don’t just have to listen to his head coach. Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury had this to say about Saleh last season:

“Watching last year to this year, Saleh has evolved with his personnel, you’re seeing more two-high zone coverages,”

Saleh also comes with a personality that will become infectious, he brings energy and excitement, something the Jets severely lacked with Adam Gase at the helm.

I could go through the adjustments that Saleh made to keep his defensive unit competitive, but instead, I’ll point you to the excellent SB Nation Niners Nation blog who broke it all down in October.

For me, Saleh represents the kind of coach we need. He’s an up-and-coming coach who’s well respected, has been in the NFL for 15 years now so he knows how it works and he’s used to working with NFL talent. He brings energy and excitement, his players respect him, he has a history of success with his unit and has shown the ability to adapt to the talent around him.

There is no sure thing when hiring a coach, but like Brandon Staley, I’d rather we take a chance on a guy like this.

If he brings Mike LaFleur with him as his offensive coordinator...even better.