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San Francisco 49ers

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

Jon Chik



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, Winning Streak, Mailbag

Brian Peacock



© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Podcast for Tuesday, December 18

  • Guest: Nick Winkler
  • Mailbag
  • Impact of winning vs draft position
  • Free agent options Sean Lee and Anthony Barr
  • Nick Mullens’ trade value


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San Francisco 49ers

PODCAST: Rapid React To Week 15 Overtime Win vs Seattle Seahawks

Brian Peacock



© Kyle Terada -USA TODAY Sports

Podcast for Monday, December 17

  • Takeaways and game balls from San Francisco’s 26-23 victory
  • Richard Sherman revenge game
  • Special teams accounts for 20 points
  • DeForest Buckner has maybe his best game in San Francisco
  • Updated draft position

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San Francisco 49ers

49ers Film Room: Rookie Safety Marcell Harris’ second NFL start



49ers Film Room: Marcell Harris
© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A week after a rough debut, San Francisco 49ers strong safety Marcell Harris made major strides in his second NFL start. Locked on 49ers’ Chris Wilson breaks down the rookie defensive back’s game film from the Niners’ Week 14 matchup against the Denver Broncos.

With their playoff hopes in the rear-view mirror, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch set a youth movement in motion for the remainder of the 2018 regular season. Proven veterans like Pierre Garcon, Malcolm Smith and Earl Mitchell have been relegated to the bench or shut down for the remainder of the year due to injury, opening the door for the 49ers’ batch of rookies and second-year players to prove their worth.

One of those rookies is strong safety Marcell Harris, San Francisco’s sixth-round draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The 49ers believe they received the defensive back at a discount, as Harris’ draft stock suffered after he missed his senior season due to a torn Achilles tendon. Harris — who started just nine games at the University of Florida — is a raw talent who played best as a box safety in college, and was projected to be a mid-round prospect prior to his injury.

After beginning the 2018 NFL regular season on injured reserve, Harris was activated by the 49ers last month, but was primarily used on special teams over his first three games. However, injuries to three of San Francisco’s safeties thrust Harris into a starting role against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13. Unfortunately, Harris didn’t impress in his starting debut, which is somewhat expected from a player with limited college action who hadn’t seen the field in nearly two years.

But with the rust knocked off and another week under his belt, Harris looked like a different player against the Denver Broncos. After missing three tackles the previous week, which was reflected in his 25.6 tackling grade from Pro Football Focus, Harris racked up seven tackles and received a tackling grade of 80.1 from PFF in Week 14. While he’s far from a complete project, Harris demonstrated the athleticism, instincts and attitude that made the 49ers’ front office choose to take a flier on the talented prospect.

Let’s break down some of San Francisco 49ers safety Marcell Harris’ Week 14 game film, and highlight both the good and the bad from the rookie’s second NFL start:


49ers SS Marcell Harris Off the Edge in Run Defense

49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh lined Harris up close to the line of scrimmage for the majority of Sunday’s contest. In fact, Harris played on the line —  in 7-technique or off the edge — as often as he lined up in a traditional deep safety role.

When on the line or stacked next to the 49ers’ two inside linebackers, Harris worked closely with the team’s front four linemen against the run — particularly with defensive end Solomon Thomas. On our first play, Thomas does most of the work by blowing up the pulling guard, which forces running back Royce Freeman outside. After taking a moment to properly diagnose the play, Harris gets around the edge and reaches the ball carrier before tight end Matt LaCosse has time to cross the formation to impact the play:


49ers SS Marcell Harris Saves DE Solomon Thomas

While Thomas made Harris’ job a lot easier in our first example, on the following play, Harris makes up for Thomas’ mistake in run defense. When the ball is snapped, right tackle Jared Veldheer goes straight to the second level while fullback Andy Janovich passes in front of quarterback Case Keenum toward the wide side of the field. Thomas decides to split between the two blockers and run down the line of scrimmage, until he realizes the Broncos’ end around is heading toward the area he vacated. Thomas leaves Harris all alone on the outside to defend the run, with a pair of blockers between the safety and the ball carrier. But Harris quickly diagnoses the play, sidesteps Veldheer and heads toward the edge. Once Janovich overcommits to the outside, Harris cuts behind him and quickly brings wide receiver Courtland Sutton down for a loss:


49ers SS Marcell Harris as a “Robber”

Although Harris has fairly limited football experience, he knows how to play as a “robber,” and excelled at the position during his time in Florida. Saleh has the 49ers line up in a two-deep look, as both linebacker Fred Warner and nickel corner D.J. Reed use outside leverage in an attempt to bait Keenum into attacking the vacant middle of the field. As the ball is snapped, Reed gives wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton an unimpeded inside release, as Harris crashes down to jump the route. Keenum keys in on Hamilton, and by the time he recognizes the 49ers’ defensive play, pressure forces the QB to exit the pocket and throw the ball away:


49ers SS Marcell Harris Comes up to Deliver a Big Hit

When Harris lines up deep in a two safety look, he doesn’t always look comfortable in pass coverage, but he’s quick to head downhill and make his presence felt by an opposing receiver. With the 49ers in Cover 2, Keenum steps up and hits Sutton on a short pass across the middle. The wideout avoids linebacker Elijah Lee with a quick move inside, but then finds a willing tackler in Harris, who travels down from deep in the secondary to deliver a big hit on Sutton. The rookies quickly get face-to-face to share some choice words but the situation doesn’t escalate, as Harris demonstrates the desired combination of intensity and self-control teams look for in a hard-hitting defender:


49ers SS Marcell Harris’ Football Instincts Prevent a Big Play

If you simply watched the television broadcast of this play, you’d think Harris made a dangerous mistake in coverage, but this was actually one of Harris’ top plays of the day. Thinking run, Harris initially attacks the line of scrimmage, which leaves him shallow in the flat, but in a decent position to defend against the lone receiver in his vicinity. However, after Lee bites hard on the play-action, he totally loses his bearings. Lee turns backward, searching for a receiver in the secondary, and misses Sutton crossing in front of him, despite Warner’s warning. Luckily, Harris peeks back and sees Sutton crossing the field uncovered. As Keenum readies himself for the pass, Harris turns and quickly catches up with the wideout as he streaks down the sideline. With his intended receiver covered, Keenum checks down to the flat vacated by Harris, but miscommunication between the QB and his running back causes the pass to fall incomplete:


49ers SS Marcell Harris Gets Pancaked by RB Phillip Lindsay

Blitzing off the edge wasn’t one of Harris’ strong suits in college, as the safety logged just a single sack over his three seasons at the University of Florida. Harris has the physical ability for the job — particularly when he faces a 5-foot-7, 184-pound running back — but his technique needs improvement. Instead of firing off the line, Harris hesitates slightly when LaCosse lets him run free, leaving RB Phillip Lindsay to block the blitzing safety. Then, instead of running through the smaller blocker, Harris hesitates again before making a move to the outside. Lindsay engages Harris at the perfect moment, and plants the 208-pound safety into the turf:


49ers SS Marcell Harris Doesn’t Save DE Ronald Blair

This time, Harris bites on the play-action as defensive end Ronald Blair — similar to Thomas on the previous play — splits between the tackle and fullback and runs down the line of scrimmage. Harris tries to change direction once he realizes his mistake, but slips, allowing left tackle Garett Bolles to take a shot at the safety. With Harris caught inside, wide receiver Tim Patrick is free to follow his lead blocker for a Broncos first down:


49ers SS Marcell Harris’ Poor Technique in Zone Coverage

At times on Sunday, it was evident that Sunday’s matchup was Harris’ second NFL start, and that the young safety is learning a new defensive scheme. Harris does well in getting outside the No. 2 receiver, although free safety Antone Exum would have appreciated if his fellow safety redirected Sutton on his way to the flat instead of allowing the wideout to run unimpeded up the field. With no receivers in his area, Harris looks for work, but he turns away from the quarterback instead of simply sinking back to help cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

Harris’ poor technique on this play creates a number of problems. By letting Sutton run free up the field, Exum is forced down to defend the hole behind the sinking inside linebackers. With Exum focused on Sutton, Witherspoon has to be prepared for a potential home run post route by Hamilton, but with Harris trailing the wideout, Witherspoon thinks he’s free to commit to the deep middle as soon as Hamilton cuts inside. Meanwhile, Harris bails on his deep coverage, as he sees Witherspoon in position to defend Hamilton’s post route. Unfortunately, Harris turns back to the QB at the worst possible moment — too late to see Keenum release the pass in his direction and too late to see Hamilton cut outside toward the sideline. With Harris spun around and Witherspoon overcommitted deep, an accurate pass would have meant a long reception for the Broncos, but luckily, Kennum air-mails the ball out-of-bounds:


49ers SS Marcell Harris Gets Picked in Man Coverage

With San Francisco lined up for a double-A-gap blitz, Harris is in man coverage against LaCosse, while Reed is tighter to the line against wide receiver River Cracraft. Both defenders are lined up with inside leverage to protect against a short pass over the middle, given the vacancy left by the blitzing linebackers. Both receivers release to the inside after the snap, but Cracraft quickly cuts between the two defenders in an attempt to distance Harris from his man. A small shove from the wideout is enough to create ample separation for LaCosse, who looks back for the pass as Harris struggles to recover. But instead of hitting his open tight end, Keenum locks on to wide receiver Andre Holmes, and as the quarterback tries to buy extra time by climbing the pocket, he’s hit from behind by edge rusher Cassius Marsh:


49ers SS Marcell Harris Ends Denver’s Fourth-Quarter Drive

When the pressure was on during a key fourth-quarter drive, Harris was at his best, as the rookie made crucial stops on three consecutive plays. On second down, the Broncos task Patrick with blocking the safety in order to free up an extra lineman to double-team 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. After the snap, Harris uses his strength and proper leverage to push Patrick back and off to the side, before disengaging and filling the hole, bringing Freeman to the ground for a short gain:

After failing to learn their lesson on second down, Denver attempts to use Patrick against Harris on another inside run on third down. Patrick doesn’t have a chance, as Harris beats him off the line and into the Broncos’ backfield. Patrick grabs Harris and tackles him to the ground, but not before the safety brings Freeman down in the backfield for a loss:

On fourth down, the Broncos decide to get the ball into the hands of their most electric playmaker, Lindsay. Since it worked before, Denver tries another pick play against Harris, who lines up across from the running back. The Broncos flood the boundary side of the field with all five receivers, but Keenum’s first look is Lindsay, who runs a “flat-7” concept with LaCosse. Both Harris and Lee are on the same page, as Harris cheats toward the outside, and Lee steps up to defend against a potential draw play. As the ball is snapped, both Lindsay and Harris sprint toward the flat. LaCosse tries to release outside and into Harris’ path, but Witherspoon engages and pushes the tight end back inside, as Harris fights through the rub in Lindsay’s direction. Keenum hits the back of his drop and fires the ball to his running back, but as soon as Lindsay catches the pass, Harris spins him to the ground short of the sticks.

For more on San Francisco 49ers safety Marcell Harris, check out Friday’s Locked on 49ers podcast, as host Brian Peacock and guest Chris Wilson discuss the rookie’s breakout performance in Week 14.

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