Robert Saleh and the 49ers defense during the Super Bowl looked like they had Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense under control. Until they didn’t. As soon as the 4th quarter struck, the Chiefs put up twenty-one unanswered that saw San Francisco’s title hopes go out the window. But Saleh, as long as he’s the 49ers defensive coordinator, will never let that happen again; here’s why.
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Let’s set the scene. In 2019, the 49ers defense ranked 2nd in yards allowed, 1st in passing yards allowed, 17th in rushing yards allowed, 8th in points allowed, 6th in takeaways, and 5th in sacks en route to establishing Saleh’s unit as an elite defense that specialized in taking away the passing game and forcing opponents to run the football.
One way Saleh did this was by implementing a wide nine defensive front with four players on the defensive line. This helped strengthen the pass defense while weakening the run defense, but in a pass oriented league, this turned out to be the right move.
In 2019, San Francisco’s defensive mentality was all about taking away the pass and limiting big plays which they did by showcasing a ton of zone defense. Yet in the Super Bowl, what ended up being their downfall? You guessed it, zone defense. The Chiefs simply found holes in San Francisco’s zone coverage and exploited them time and time again.
This offseason Saleh realized that a great defense showcases both man and zone coverage, not only to become less predictable, but to be able to move freely between the two when the situation calls for it. If the 49ers had ended up double teaming Tyreek Hill in the Super Bowl’s second half, then there’s a good chance that Hill would never have hauled in a 3rd down prayer from Patrick Mahomes to shift the momentum. I’m not saying that the 49ers should shift away from zone defense. Rather, I’m encouraging that when the time calls for it, Saleh shouldn’t be afraid to utilize some looks in man coverage.
Thankfully for 49ers fans, San Francisco ended up making some moves this offseason to aid their man defense. Most notably, they brought in new defensive backs coach Tony Oden who specializes in man defense. Oden has spent time in Miami as well as in Detroit, and has helped develop elite shutdown corners like Darius Slay and Xavien Howard.
This is great news for Ahkello Witherspoon, the 49ers best man coverage corner. Witherspoon will be able to continue to develop around a guy who has already brought out the best in young corners before.
Bringing Oden to San Francisco really shows that Saleh and the 49ers are not scared to shift their defensive scheme next season, as they try to continue to hone and perfect their defense moving forward. Also, with the amount of great wide receivers in the NFC West with guys like DeAndre Hopkins, Cooper Kupp, and Tyler Lockett, playing more man coverage may help Saleh shut those guys down.
Therefore, with some more man coverage coming to the 49ers defensive arsenal, expect for Saleh’s ability to shut down opposing number one wideouts to heighten in an effort to make sure that the 4th quarter of Super Bowl 54 never happens again.