While head coach Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers are coming off of a dominant offensive performance, putting up 37 points on Mike Pettine’s Packers, many were highly impressed with Robert Saleh’s unit, limiting the explosive Aaron Rodgers to only eight points this past Sunday night.
All season long, the spotlight has been on Shanahan and his play design on offense, but the more impressive part about the 49ers’ team is how their defense has evolved into one of the best groups that the NFL has ever seen.
Per Football Outsiders’ DVOA — a metric that takes into account strength of schedule, situation, conditions, etc. — the 49ers have the eighth-best defense in NFL history. Each week, San Francisco’s defense has continually risen to the challenge and shut down formidable opponents, highlighting Saleh’s coaching and game planning.
San Francisco’s first real test was Week 5 against the Browns, an offense that featured quarterback Baker Mayfield, wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Mayfield finished with 100 passing yards, Beckham Jr. only had two catches and the Browns only managed to score three points in an absolute rout.
The following week, the 49ers had to go on the road to face off against Sean McVay and the high-flying Rams. Quarterback Jared Goff managed only 78 passing yards, and the Rams did not score a point after an opening drive touchdown.
With every passing week, the narrative continued to be that the 49ers defense would fold against a top-tier quarterback or offense, but to this date, they have not given up more than 27 points.
Saleh’s unit limited MVP-candidate Russell Wilson to a season-worst 6.8 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 86.9 (third-lowest on the season).
Still not enough evidence? For the final test, Saleh’s group limited the Packers to eight points, and Rodgers only managed 3.2 yards per attempt — which was the worst of his career.
Through 11 games, the 49ers’ defense is displaying dominance across all levels. The pass rush has 44 sacks so far, which leads the NFL and is the most by any team since 2009. They get off the field quickly, forcing 38 three-and-outs, which leads the NFL. They only allow a league-leading 4.29 yards per play as well.
Player development has also been a key facet of Saleh’s shine as a defensive coordinator. Between Saleh and his staff, there’s a legitimate chance that the 49ers have a Pro-Bowl player at every position on defense.
With San Francisco’s defense asserting themselves as one of the best units in football, it’s brought Saleh as one of the premier head-coaching candidates heading into this offseason.
Looking around the NFL, there are not very many head-coaching candidates. It seems to be a small group that will include Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley, Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, Robert Saleh, and likely a few other wild-card candidates.
While Saleh’s going to land more than a few interviews this offseason, Sunday will be a big test for him and his staff to see how they can slow down Lamar Jackson and a Ravens’ offense that’s virtually at the top of every major statistical category.
Per DVOA, the Ravens are the most efficient offense in the NFL, ranking first in rushing offense and fourth in passing offense. They’ve got a multitude of rushers from Jackson to Mark Ingram to Gus Edwards. Wideout Marquise Brown will stretch the field vertically, while tight end Mark Andrews will help move the chains.
Ironically, the Ravens’ offense is designed by the same man that architected the 49ers’ offense in the early 2010s — Greg Roman, who’s very familiar running the offense with a dual-threat quarterback.
The Ravens are averaging over 40 points per game in their last three contests — two against formidable opponents in the Rams and Texans. The 49ers have not given up more than 27 points in a game this season, so something’s going to have to give on Sunday.
Even though it’s a 10 AM PT start, all eyes are going to be on the 49ers’ defense and how they will slow down the likely MVP. San Francisco has completely neutralized pocket quarterbacks, but have shown some leaks against mobile quarterbacks, so it will be fascinating to watch how Saleh schemes the defense to slow down the NFL’s hottest signal-caller.
This game could go a long way in being part of Robert Saleh’s resume when it comes to head coaching openings this Spring.