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San Francisco 49ers

The case for and against Robert Saleh returning to Niners in 2019

Jon Chik

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49ers Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh

Keep him or dump him? San Francisco Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh seems to have a tenuous grip on his job, and the final five games might go a long way in determining whether he returns in 2019. Here, we’re taking a look at the cases for and against retaining Saleh for a third season.

Dump him: The results simply aren’t there in 2018

The NFL is a “here and now” league. Players and coaches alike are always under the microscope. It’s a league where your standing with your team never seems to stagnate: If your stock isn’t rising, it’s falling. And Saleh’s is falling thanks to San Francisco’s 2-9 record and a defensive unit that gives up 26.6 points per game, tied with Arizona for sixth-worst in the league.

Most players who were expected to take a leap this season – Solomon Thomas, Adrian Colbert, Reuben Foster (for obvious reasons), Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward, ect. – have simply failed to do so. With a lack of improvement from so many young players, many of whom have actually regressed, it’s fair to wonder why anyone should trust Saleh to get any of these players trending back up in 2019.

On the other hand…

Keep him: He’s less than two years into his tenure as San Francisco’s Defensive Coordinator

There’s no other way to put it: Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch, Robert Saleh and everyone else in the front office and on the coaching staff inherited an utter train wreck of a roster when they joined the organization before the start of last season.

The franchise had been utterly directionless since the team’s loss to Seattle in the 2013 NFC Championship, and ownership seemingly had no idea what kind of a team they wanted to put together. Shanahan and Lynch – and Saleh by extension – came in with a plan, one that was highly unlikely to be completed just past the midway point of year two.

At the very least, Saleh has helped lay the foundation and has a bona fide Superstar at all three levels: DeForest Buckner on the defensive line, Fred Warner at linebacker and Richard Sherman in the secondary. While it’s true that DeFo and Sherm each were outstanding players before their time with Saleh, the second-year defensive coordinator has nevertheless coached Buckner to his best season to date, gotten the most out of an aging corner coming off of a ruptured Achilles, and guided a first-year, third-round linebacker to a strong rookie campaign. So, he’s clearly getting the best out of his top players.

K’Waun Williams and Arik Armstead have quietly turned in solid if unspectacular seasons under Saleh’s watch this season as well. Elijah Lee, too, in limited snaps.

Dump him: Poor fundamental football

Saleh can’t help that the current regime potentially (or in some cases, obviously) over-drafted players like Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, Tarvarius Moore and D.J. Reed, so it would be unfair to pin that on him (Moore and Reed each have limited playing time this season, so the jury is still out, but neither has burst onto the scene in year one). Even early-round picks such as first-rounder Arik Armstead and second-rounder Jaquiski Tartt from previous regimes have failed to live up to the hype.

However, he can’t be absolved of blame when he’s overseeing a defense that routinely makes mental mistakes, misses assignments is atrocious at tackling. When a team is downright abysmal at some of the most fundamental elements of football, that can almost always be chalked up to poor coaching, and seeing the 49ers give up touchdown passes to egregiously open targets is certainly getting old.

Keep him: He’s had very little help via the draft

With the previous two year’s draft classes looking shaky at best – especially on the defensive side of the ball – Saleh hasn’t had a ton of help from the organization due to what seem to be a pair of subpar drafts.

It’s a bit of a catch-22, as the argument could also be made that Saleh should be getting more out of these players, especially since several flashed at least some promise as rookies, but Saleh certainly doesn’t have the final say on Draft Day.

Perhaps Saleh actually overachieved toward the end of last season when guys like Witherspoon and Colbert were playing well and looking like they would vastly outperform their draft status, and said players simply regressed to their mean this year.

The front office must learn from its mistakes and needs to have its best draft in the Lynch-Shanny era in 2019; if they do, Saleh may have the final few pieces he needs to give the Niners their best defense in the past half-decade. Bringing in Earl Thomas wouldn’t hurt.

Dump him: The Niners could potentially use a shakeup

Sometimes it just doesn’t click, and that could be what we’re seeing with Saleh. And in certain instances, players need to feel the sudden jolt that comes with the removal of one or all of their coaches.

Maybe these players are better suited for a different defensive scheme, such as a move back to the 3-4. Perhaps a new defensive coordinator could run a similar scheme as Saleh but could do so with better communication. Or maybe the new coordinator connects with them on a more personal level and knows how to push the right buttons.

Though there have been a few fleeting bright spots, San Francisco’s defensive output in 2018 simply isn’t good enough to get it done it today’s NFL.

Successful coaches with proven track records could be available after the season. Likewise, up-and-comers may also be interested in overseeing a 49er defense that certainly boasts some enticing building blocks.

Keep him: Do the Niners really want to pull the plug early and start all over again?

San Francisco’s coaching staff has hardly been a model of consistency over the last half-decade, as Shanahan became the fourth head coach in as many seasons when he took over in 2017. Constantly shuffling coaches in and out is not a model for success in the NFL, and at some point, an organization must opt for continuity.

There’s no getting around it: 2018 has been rough for the Niners. It’s one of those uniquely awful campaigns where everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. But there are few, if any, defensive units that could have been won with the hand that Saleh has been dealt: the release of one of his best young defensive players due to domestic violence allegations, injuries across his secondary and the complete lack of an outside pass-rusher. Not to mention, the loss of Jimmy Garoppolo ensured that the 49ers would have a tougher time sustaining drives, meaning Saleh’s defense was guaranteed to spend more time on the field.

San Francisco’s defense somewhat surprisingly ranks 11th in yards allowed per game (350.4). Even if the solid ranking can be somewhat attributed to game script, it also shows that the unit hasn’t been hemorrhaging as many yards as one might think and suggests that it perhaps hasn’t played quite as poorly as perceived.

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San Francisco 49ers

PODCAST: Weekly Wink, Trade Rumors

Brian Peacock

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https://cms.megaphone.fm/channel/lockedonnfl?selected=LKN1790036475
  • Guest: Nick Winkler
  • Jalen Ramsey trade rumors intensify
  • Is it worth spending on offensive tackle Trent Williams?
  • Could young star safety Jamal Adams hit the trade market?
  • 49ers primed for a 3-0 start

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San Francisco 49ers

PODCAST: 49ers-Steelers Crossover

Brian Peacock

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© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
  • Guests: Tony Serino and Christopher Carter of Locked On Steelers
  • What to expect from second-year QB Mason Rudolph, who is starting in place of injured Ben Roethlisberger
  • How new Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick fits in
  • Predictions

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San Francisco 49ers

49ers vs. Bengals: San Francisco Week 2 Game Balls & Highlights

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49ers Bengals Week 2 Game Balls Highlights
© Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Game balls and highlights from the San Francisco 49ers’ 41-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2 of the 2019 NFL regular season.

On yesterday’s Locked On 49ers Podcast, host Brian Peacock provided a rundown of the Niners’ game — including game notes and key takeaways — and handed out four game balls to the San Francisco 49ers from their Week 2 blowout win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

The 49ers made a statement to the rest of the league during their second consecutive road victory to start the 2019 NFL regular season. Outside of a long garbage-time touchdown given up in the final minute of the matchup, the 49ers’ defense was dominant, finishing the game with four sacks, nine tackles-for-loss and one interception.

But despite holding the Bengals to just 25 yards on 19 rushing attempts, San Francisco’s offensive unit shined the brightest in Week 2 — which brings us to our first game ball:

49ers HC Kyle Shanahan

San Francisco’s offensive attack was nearly unstoppable in Week 2, and much of their success should be credited to 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who called one of his best games since arriving in the Bay Area over two seasons ago. The Niners tallied 572 net yards on offense at an 8.4 yards-per-play clip, and were forced to punt the ball just once during meaningful play, prior to the final two minutes of the game.

Shanahan — the 49ers’ de facto offensive coordinator — was always one step ahead of the Bengals’ defense, which was constantly confused by the Niners’ flurry of misdirection plays. With Cincinnati’s defenders forced to play both passively and reactionary, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo took advantage by throwing for 297 passing yards and three scores. Garoppolo executed on the field, but he had Shanahan’s superb game plan to thank for his FexEx Air Passer of the Week nomination, as well as his 131.2 passer rating and his 11.9 yards-per-pass-attempt — both of which were tops in the NFL in Week 2.

 

49ers RB Matt Breida

Prior to the beginning of the regular season, many analysts wrote 49ers running back Matt Breida off as either a potential change-of-pace option in San Francisco’s backfield or a player who would simply ride the bench in 2019. But just two games into the season, Breida has officially put that talk to rest by claiming his well-deserved spot at the top of the 49ers’ running back depth chart, even after fellow RB Tevin Coleman eventually returns from injury.

Breida was electric on Sunday as he tallied 121 rushing yards on only 12 carries, and added 11 yards through the air on one reception. The former undrafted free agent may never be a 25-carry feature back, but it’s hard to ignore a runner who averages over 10 yards-per-touch. Breida’s outstanding Week 2 performance was  highlighted by a 34-yard gain on a third-and-short run, where he looked a lot more like Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders than a bench player who should be relegated to the sidelines:

 

49ers Offensive Line

Although Breida has the speed and agility necessary to break off long runs after making defenders miss, he surely didn’t mind running through some of the gaping holes the 49ers’ offensive line provided on Sunday. Breida wasn’t the only beneficiary of San Francisco’s big men up front, as the 49ers’ trio of running backs graded out as the NFL’s top unit of the week by Pro Football Focus (PFF). Recent practice-squad RB Jeff Wilson found the end zone for a pair of scores in the contest, and dual-threat running back Raheem Mostert followed his blockers on long runs and screen passes en route to a spot on PFF’s “NFL Team of the Week” for Week 2:

It was a near-perfect day for the Niners’ offensive line, as they also kept Garoppolo’s jersey clean for the vast majority of the game. But a dark cloud fell over the group in the third quarter of the team’s Week 2 victory, when left tackle Joe Staley sustained a fractured left fibula which will keep the 49ers’ top lineman out of action for approximately six to eight weeks.

 

49ers LB Kwon Alexander

Last week, linebacker Kwon Alexander received a game ball from Shanahan in the 49ers’ locker room after the team’s 31-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, despite his early exit from his Niners debut. Alexander was ejected from the contest when his helmet made contact with the helmet of former teammate Jameis Winston, when the quarterback awkwardly went to the ground at the end of a third-down scramble. In the limited time prior to his questionable ejection, Alexander looked like the player Shanahan and general manager John Lynch hoped to sign, as the 25-year-old linebacker flew around the field making plays and hyping up his teammates.

Last Sunday, Alexander earned his 49ers game ball for his leadership in the locker room and his passion for the game. This Sunday, Alexander earned Locked On 49ers game ball for his leadership in the locker room, his passion for the game and his production on the field. Alexander not only brought the same level of intensity to Cincinnati, but the linebacker was also one of the best — and most productive — players on the field in Week 2. With a key interception, three defended passes and six tackles, Alexander earned PFF “NFL Team of the Week” honors, and our final game ball of the week:

 

Listen to Locked On 49ers host Brian Peacock’s review of the San Francisco 49ers’ Week 2 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals — including game notes and key takeaways from the Niners’ second matchup of the 2019 NFL regular season — on yesterday’s Rapid React podcast:

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